The Founding of Denispri

by Gordon Saunders

Overview of the Verduran Pentology

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1836, is the first place on earth from which young people are brought into another world. In the course of about fifty years, earth time, we see the beginning, the end, and pieces of the mid-life of the people and place called Verdura. Its people come from almost every earth continent and from numerous earth races to produce a varied and complex culture. The people from North America who get into Verdura represent both native peoples and immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa; slave and free.

The Lord of this world is a creature that looks like a peregrine falcon, but is so much more. Communication and translation often take place inside the mind, without benefit of tongues or ears. This must be the case, since some of the main characters are mineral, not animal.

There is no magic, no zombies, werewolves, vampires, elves, orcs, or fairies. But their absence is made up by the unusual flora, fauna and carbonates that are the natural inhabitants.

The evil and good, wrong and right, mistakes and redemption in Verdura, demonstrate truths that hold good on earth, enabling the characters – and the readers – to deal more effectively with their challenges in everyday life.

Here are a couple of excerpts to give you a feel for The Founding of Denispri.

From Chapter 1: Leaving New Orleans

New Orleans in 1842

The New Orleans waterfront spread out in an expansive panorama before Joshua and Marie from their perch on the levee. This was Joshua’s favorite spot to watch river traffic. Which had something to do with the traffic, but mostly to do with its convenient location in front of the Place d’Arm, the Eglise, the Hotel de Ville, and, more importantly, the Halle des Boucheries – the largest market in the city that sold the best chocolate croissants in the city.

Joshua was eating one now, but Marie had chosen the more fragile chocolate crepe and was striving to keep the contents from escaping onto her clothing.

“There!” said Joshua, pointing to his right. The word didn’t come out clearly because of the flakey, buttery, intensely chocolatey bit of croissant in his mouth that he couldn’t bring himself to swallow hastily before speaking.

Marie finished her demure mouthful and responded. “Little brother,” she said, “are you trying to indicate that something is coming our way from the north?”

“Ye-es-s!” he said in a sing-songy way, having finally finessed his pastry. “And I’m not so little anymore, either, big sis. I’m taller than you and I have been for at least three years, since I was sixteen, I think.” He pointed back up the river. “Anyway, I’m sure that’s the Waltham up there.”

“The one that says ‘Creole Belle’ in large letters over the paddle wheel?” she said. “I don’t think that’s the one father was on.”

“Ha, ha. You couldn’t see the words from here anyway. It’s the stacks that give it away. Look more closely.”

The wharves before the levy where the river flowed from the northwest were filled with steamboats as far as they could see – most of whose stacks were billowing steam through elaborate decorations at the top. The viewpoint was in the center of the biggest curve on the river, and on the southern side of the curve, where the downstream river headed southwest, most of the wharves were taken up with large sailing vessels.

Marie looked to the left.

“Not that way,” he said. “Honestly. Sometimes you are so…”

She looked back with a smirk. “I know,” she said. She looked back upstream. “The Waltham is supposed to have the tallest stacks of all the boats now on the river, and a higher jack staff with a bigger flag.”

“How do you know all that?” Joshua asked.

“Boys aren’t the only ones who can read,” she said. She leaned forward, shading her eyes with her hand, gazing upstream. “And the Waltham is just coming into view alongside the ‘Creole Bell,’ or whatever it’s called, in such a way as to make me believe they’re racing.”

“All right,” said Joshua a little crankily. “So you see it, too.”

“Yes,” said Marie, “and enough to note that they have not slowed down to ‘no wake’ as they are supposed to do when they pass Place de Marche.”

“Oh, who cares,” said Joshua. “Aren’t rules made to be broken?”

“They are broken,” said Marie. “But I don’t think that’s the intent.”

Other steam-powered craft scurried out of the way of the two large steamboats making their way into the most crowded part of the river. A few boats pushing barges stopped dead on the periphery of the river, their crews emerging and cheering the two racers on.

“Where is it supposed to dock?” asked Marie.

“Ha,” said Joshua, “I thought you could read.”

“What I want to read,” she said.

Joshua looked back at the two boats. “Actually, it’s supposed to dock by Calle de Gravier. But he’s going to have to slow down pretty quickly and get on this side of the other boat if he’s to do that.”

“Does it look to you like he’s trying to outrun the other boat and cut in front of him?”

“Yeah,” said Joshua, “and he’s listing to larboard, too.”

“The left side?” asked Marie. Joshua just shook his head and rolled his eyes.

By now they could see the dozens of passengers leaning on the railings on each deck, presumably to watch the race unfold.

“That can’t be good,” said Marie. She glanced over at Joshua. “And he’s going to have to back pedal, because he won’t make it in front of the other boat soon enough to get over.”

Joshua opened his mouth to respond. But Marie did not hear if he did. Because just then there was a terrific explosion that caused her to jerk her head back to the river in time to see ‘the largest stacks on the river’ flying through the air, along with flaming debris, railings, barrels, lumber, and people.

“Father!” she screamed.

*   *   *

Next morning, Marie picked up a newspaper at the kiosk around the corner from their house. Though she tried, she couldn’t avoid the headlines literally shouting, “Steamboat Catastrophe!” and the lurid, after-the-fact drawings showing steamboat pieces and people flying through the air amidst fire and smoke. She pulled her eyes away from them and scanned the article.

“…worst disaster ever seen on the river…”

“…dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries…”

“…both boats a total loss…”

“…dozens missing and presumed–”

She stopped reading there. She would not accept their presumption. Maybe they would find Father. After all, some passengers had already been found down river where they had floated on parts of the boat.

No. He couldn’t be dead. Mother was hysterical and Joshua, against Mother’s specific prohibition, was out on the west side of the river in a punt, downstream by the swamps, looking for any sign of him. They needed Father back! They had to have Father back in order to have anything resembling normalcy in their lives. Why did his company have to build that stupid steamboat, anyway? It was just a pride thing, having to have the biggest one. They wanted to show off. And, of course, it wouldn’t be biggest for long.

But she wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t. She was the one holding the family together now. She would be strong. Maybe she would cry later. Yes, she would cry later. But not today.

From Chapter 7: First Friends

Birds in early Verdura

By late afternoon, after Joshua and Tsiskwa had climbed over the ridge behind what had appeared to be Mt. Cerus, they came to an abrupt stop. The ridge ended on the top of a great limestone bluff, probably two hundred feet above a river that wandered through rich meadows below. A single mountain dominated the view before them.

“Sure looks like the mountain Denispri was on,” Joshua said. “Only that one has an indentation on this side that makes it look like a cupped hand.”

The two stared silently northward for some time. Joshua shook his head. “How will we do it?” he asked, shaking his head. “It’s just too much to ask!”

He was startled by the sweet, strong sound of a whistle just beside him. Tsiskwa was lying, full length, her head over the bluff, whistling. Joshua threw himself to the ground and grabbed her legs.

“Careful!” he yelled. “You’ll fall!” Tsiskwa pulled herself back and sat up. Her eyes gleamed mischievously at him. “I will not fall, white-eyes! Am I not Tsiskwa-chiluk?” She laughed out loud, a beautiful sound. “Be quiet! You will frighten my sisters!”

Just then, Joshua could see off in the distance, over the river, several great birds circling, circling as he had seen Ispri do, circling and riding the fading currents up to the top of the bluff. The two watched in silence for a long time until the first of the birds landed clumsily, to their east, between the wood and the edge of the bluff. Within a few minutes about a dozen had landed.

Tsiskwa walked slowly to them, while they stood and watched. They were not like the marsavaals, the harvester birds Joshua had seen when in Verdura before. If anything they were larger. But they were smaller than the birds Steven and Elrond had flown on from Arona. Joshua wondered how they sustained the enormous appetites they must have. Must be an awful lot of whatever they eat around, thought Joshua. They had long, narrow necks and talons on their partially webbed feet. Their sharp beaks, curved to a point at the end, showed that they were likely birds of prey. Tsiskwa walked among them, very cautiously, humming a little tune, but otherwise making no sound or attempt to touch them. Then she sat down and was absolutely still.

The sun had fallen behind the mountains to the left, which were considerably higher than their ridge, and evening came to the sky. An early moon began to rise directly east of Joshua. It’s full orange orb framed Tsiskwa and the birds. They had all come to her and settled around her, their heads in her lap or under their wings as they nestled as close to her as possible. She remained motionless, in the position in which she had first sat down.

Joshua contemplated the scene. He had never seen such a moon in Verdura before. The sky had always been too full of clouds or pollen. Whatever would happen while they were here, or after they left – if, indeed they would leave this time, and he thought of his mother alone in Tuscumbia with a little pang – would fill the sky with that pollen and those clouds. How could the actions of just a few people make that much difference?

The moon rose and got whiter and smaller, as it does on earth. In its light Joshua could see that Tsiskwa and the birds remained as they had been. He marveled at her ability to be still. He decided he should take advantage of the bright moonlight to find some food, if any was to be found. He had the idea that Tsiskwa had arranged for their transportation north. If they were to leave soon, they would need as much food as could be collected. He walked westward along the edge of the trees, checking for bushes. He found some burdened with berries that resembled edible berries on earth, took his jacket from where he had tied it around his waist, tied knots in the end of the sleeves, and began to fill it with the berries..

In the moonlight it was not easy to tell the color of these berries, but they seemed to be grey or blue, and much more like earthly berries than like the berries he had eaten in Verdura before. He continued to move west and collect them. Then he saw that the moon was settling behind the mountains, so he began back toward Tsiskwa and the birds. It was too dark to see before he had gotten all the way back, so he settled where he was, curling around his jacket full of berries. He hoped he could be as still as Tsiskwa and so preserve the berries.

*  *  *

It wasn’t so much their squawking as their feet on his legs and arms that awoke Joshua next morning. Though he woke with a start, he had the presence of mind to remain still. He raised his arm to unsettle the one perched on it, and sat up slowly. A few of the birds fluttered off a few paces, but came back to finish the last of the berries.

“My sisters thank you for their breakfast,” said Tsiskwa, standing before him, grinning.

“That was supposed to be our breakfast,” said Joshua, “and dinner and supper, too, I might add.”

“But you have made friends,” said Tsiskwa, “and soon we will go north.” She waved her hands and the birds all flew north over the bluff and downward.

“What did you do that for?” cried Joshua.

“A few berries can’t be their real breakfast,” said Tsiskwa. “Watch.”

Joshua stood and the two walked toward the edge of the bluff. The birds made their way to the river that flowed southeasterly below them. Expertly, they snatched fish from near its surface with their talons, sometimes one fish in each.

Tsiskwa began to gather dead wood, presumably for a fire. Joshua then decided to go east along the trees, and try once more to collect a breakfast of berries. By the time he had returned, jacket sleeves filled, Tsiskwa had a fire going with two fish on it. Two of the birds preened themselves nearby.

Tsiskwa pointed with her chin at a spot on the grass beside her. Joshua sat. With two sticks Tsiskwa took a fish off the topmost dry rock she had used as a cooking platform, and placed it on a smooth rock between them. Joshua set the jacket and berries in front of the rock, reached into a sleeve, and pulled out a few berries which he handed to her. They ate in silence.

“Why do you call the birds your sisters,” asked Joshua, breaking the silence at last.

Tsiskwa looked at him and then at the birds for a moment, making a moue with her mouth. She kept that expression for some moments and then spoke.

“It has come to me,” she said, “that you and I can understand the speech we use, and that we could understand the speech of Coosa, though we do not speak the same tongue.” She took a few more berries from the jacket and smiled at Joshua, popping them into her mouth. After a moment she continued.

“When you asked me, just now, why I call the birds my sisters, I wondered how you could fail to know. But then I remembered that my name has the same sound as before, while my other words have a different sound. In my tongue, the tongue of the Atali Tsalagi, my name means ‘Cave Bird.’ Since I was a child I have felt kinship with birds that nest in holes or bluffs or by the entrance of caves. We are sisters. And my sisters have come to help us in our need.” She rose.

“Many of the sisters of my people perished on the way to the land the white chief said we must go to,” she continued quietly. “I know not whether any remain to carry on the line of the bird clan.” She turned to look at the now half-dozen birds preening by the edge of the bluff. “But my sisters on the wing have brought me comfort. And now they will help us to do what the One has told us to do.”

She whistled softly and the birds looked toward her. Two moved out from the rest and half-walked, half-fluttered their way. Joshua marveled at them, once again. They reminded him of cranes with short beaks and necks, though they were larger by far than any of the cranes he had seen in Louisiana. He wondered if these could carry Tsiskwa and himself. Then he remembered the kite ride he had had on his first trip here, the birds that had carried Steven and the men of Arona, and especially the powerful constant winds of Verdura, and felt a little more confident.

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