In ancient days when the island was new, Moon spoke. Mountain and Sun once spoke too, but both threatened Man and so SutaKe tricked them into silence.
From these elements, then, Man was safe. But not all was good. Moon had grown lonely without her companions to talk to, and had made known her intention to punish Man for SutaKe’s deception.
Moon waited almost a year before laying down her punishment—for Moon was clever, and not unkind—but as her loneliness grew only greater, and as her grief had grown no less, the penalty she settled on for Man was grave indeed.
“SutaKe,” Moon greeted Man, “and all the HoluKo. You know well how your tricks have pained me. Though my friends, Sun and Mountain, are still beside me, they do not speak. Their company no longer brings me joy. You know well also that, when your people die, they come to me. They walk about upon my shores, and I ensure that there is food, water and shelter enough for all. You can see this, and you can speak to them, whenever you care to look upon me in the sky.”
The HoluKo were silent. Long had they been expecting Moon to deal out her punishment, and always had they known that it would be severe. But whatever Moon dictated now was sure to be terrible, since it involved the spirits on her shores.
“It occurs to me,” continued Moon, “that these people that you loved and lost are not so different to you than Sun and Mountain were to me. It is fitting, then, that your pain should be the same as mine. I intend to lift myself high into the heavens, so that you can never see or speak to me again. Death now shall hold greater horror even than before, since the spirits of your fallen ones shall not be seen again.”
The HoluKo began to weep. This punishment was harsh indeed, and all would feel it hard to bear. Seeing his people so moved, SutaKe spoke.
“Moon,” he called up to the sky. “It is right that you should have some vengeance. I cannot deny that I have wronged you. But I did it only to save my people. I did it only because there was no other way. And though I see that I have harmed you with my deeds, not once did I wish to quarrel with you. Because of this, I think your punishment too cruel. Let me have some opportunity to wash my crimes away, and thus avoid it.”
“SutaKe,” Moon spoke down. “My fellow elements thought Man grew bold. That his great pride had grown beyond his little power. But I remained apart and watched while they ran to crush you. I see in you no hubris to abhor: your pride has grown, but not out of proportion to your power. And so I look on you not with disgust, but fear.”
“But still we could be friends, Moon. If only you would forget how we have wronged you, would put off your punishment, you would have no need to fear.”
Moon shed stars as tears, and all the HoluKo could see her grief was true. “No,” she said. “Deception has robbed me of my friends, so honest must I be with you. It is not only for your punishment that I intend to drift away, but for my own protection. SutaKe, each element that has drawn within your grasp, you have seized and subdued. Mountain does your will, and does not speak. Sun does your will, and does not speak. I have little doubt that, were I to quarrel with you further, I would come to share their fate.”
“But what if…”
“You propose a wager?” Moon smiled. “I know how that tale would end, SutaKe. I have heard it twice before. Should you issue any challenge, I must refuse. I have no wish to put my power within your grasp, and not merely because I fear you now. You have harnessed the power of Mountain and Sun already. Were you to have mine too, were you to wield all three elements, you would become a god.”
“And why should that worry you so?” Something in Moon’s voice made SutaKe forget his grief. “I conquered Mountain only because his callousness would have killed us. I conquered Sun only because he made thoughtless threats. I used deceit to do these things, but there was no malice in my mind! If you threaten my people with that same cruelty, and I am forced to conquer you, why should I not have your power as I have theirs?”
“Because Man, for all the beauty of his works, will forever have evil in his heart. I am happy to see your fires, though they remind me of lost Mountain. I am happy to see your mirrors, though they bring to mind lost Sun. But were you to possess my power also, the three combined would be greater than the three separate. That power would corrupt you, SutaKe, and the world would suffer. Put it from your mind.”
SutaKe said nothing.
“Now, I have a long, long journey to make.” Moon wept another stream of stars. “The longest, I think, that ever will be. Farewell, HoluKo. Farewell for eternity.” And Moon began to drift up through the stars.
“Wait!” shouted SutaKe, after her back.
“What I propose is not a challenge. Not like the other two, at least. And I give you my word there is no trick in it. Yours is the power over life and death, and never will I claim it. Only, do not take our loved ones too high for us to see. There may be evil in us, that I cannot deny, but kindness overwhelms it. Please, Moon. The contest I propose will show this, if only you will stay to listen.”
Moon descended once again, though still she remained more distant than before. “I will hear the details of your contest,” she said, “but I make no further promise.”
“I propose a contest of gifts.” SutaKe was glad, at least, that Moon was not already gone. “There is no trick here. Each of us will bestow three gifts upon the other. Whoever gives the greatest gifts will be the victor, only, hear me out. It is not the winning of the contest that matters here. You are powerful, Moon, and surely have great gifts to give. But if I can give away still greater wonders, it will show that kindness outshines evil in my heart. Man would not merely have won your presence: he would have proven himself worthy! Think on this, Moon, see that there is no trick, and accept if you are willing.”
For hours, the HoluKo waited, watching Moon’s face in the sky. And for those hours, Moon thought hard. SutaKe was right, she realised. If his gift was greater than her own, it would show that Man’s little evil was no cause for fear. But still Moon was suspicious, and rightly so, for SutaKe’s contest did hold a trick, and a very subtle one at that.
SutaKe’s craftsmen had made a vast number of mirrors to vanquish Sun, and such great practice had lent them skill in the art the like of which has never since been seen. Moon, he was sure, could grant gifts just as grand, but—crucially—no grander. Goods, he knew, were not the kindest gift. To win the contest, Moon would have to give something more. But the only greater thing she had to give was her enduring presence, and with it the departed spirits who walked her shores. Thus, SutaKe knew that even if he lost the contest, he would win his prize.
Moon’s great mind was not as sharp as SutaKe’s and she did not realise the trick. Nevertheless, Moon had seen both Sun and Mountain bested in this way, and so was still suspicious. “I agree that this contest is fair,” she said. “If you win, you will truly have proven yourself kind. And if I win, I will make my journey as I planned.” Truthfully, Moon did not want to live in even greater loneliness, high in the heavens, and so she was happy that SutaKe had made this wager. However, she was wiser than the other elements—too wise to let joy cloud her judgement. “However,” she continued, “I have seen your tricks before. If you are not truly kind, if you do not win this contest or seek only to deceive, I give myself the right to deal out a greater punishment for your past misdeeds. Now you think on this arrangement, SutaKe. If your challenge is a trick, withdraw it now. Wrong me, and my wrath will make your present penalty seem kind.”
SutaKe did think. He thought very carefully indeed. Though Mountain could sear and Sun scorch, Moon’s power was subtler, and far more terrible. But SutaKe was cunning, and felt confident in his great plan. Moon’s new wrath could not be so harsh that it destroyed the winning gift, and so at the very least, the HoluKo would have their departed loved ones still. Also, SutaKe was confident in his craftsmen: the mirror-makers and Stonemen were skilled indeed, and it seemed possible even that this contest could be won in earnest. “What you suggest is fair,” he said at last. “I wish that you could see that I deceived your companions only because they became a threat to my people. However, I can understand your trepidation. It is reasonable that you should have some assurance that I have no trick in mind.”
And so the contest of gifts began. For three days and three nights, the HoluKo women set about weaving a fine cloak for Moon, with soft fibres dyed in solid, substantial colours. The cloak was a garment like none made since. Its weave was so fine that neither water nor air could find its way through the fabric, and its hue was dark and rich as night.
In return, Moon gave to SutaKe a collar woven from the reeds of her own white island. Taken from beyond the In-between, that fabric would never wear and was more beautiful than anything the mortal island could produce. Anything, that was, except Moon’s new cloak, which was easily its rival. But the first gift, SutaKe had always known, would be the least lavish and so he had held back the mirror-makers for a later exchange. Moon, clearly, had thought the same. SutaKe put on his woven collar, and has worn it ever since. Moon put on her cloak and turned in admiration. Moon turns still, though very slowly: you can see this in the sky at night.
“It seems that these gifts are evenly matched,” said Moon, turning slowly in the sky. “Your gift to me is kind indeed, but no kinder than mine, you must admit.”
“I do admit it,” said SutaKe. “But my next gift to you shall be grander.”
“As shall mine to you.”
And so ended the first exchange of gifts. Immediately, SutaKe set his mirror-makers to work on the second. This was a great mirror—far greater than the one he had used to trick Sun into giving out his light—and all of one perfect piece of stone. The Stonemen worked a day and a night to bring it from the quarry, and for two more days and two more nights, the mirror-makers set about polishing its surface to a flawless sheen. So lustrous was that obsidian glass that the light it gave off was twelve times as bright as that it took in—the image ten times clearer than unvarnished sight.
In exchange for this most precious gift, Moon gave a wondrous sword. Once again, its substance had come from the white island itself. The wood that formed its body, no stone could break, and the many pitch-set blades that formed its edge would never shatter. So sharp were these that they could cut not only the matter, but the spirit of a man: for the spirits on the white island use such things themselves. SutaKe took up his sword, and Moon gazed into her mirror.
“In truth,” said Moon, “your gift is the more finely crafted.” She put the mirror before her face, and from the island all the HoluKo saw Moon’s light filtered through the ruddy stone. Moon does not often do this now, but sometimes, if you are lucky, you can see it in the sky at night. “However,” Moon continued, “the thing that I have given you is like nothing the island has seen before. I have mirrors here that, while nowhere near as fine, are comparable in form. By this token, I believe the value of our gifts is equal once again.”
“I will admit,” said SutaKe, “that this sword is special. There is no other like it on the island, and though I have not seen the mirrors you possess, I can believe that they may be almost as beautiful as the one I have given you. Though your gift to me is not so fine, its rarity, I think, makes its worth just as great.” He admitted this, but was still confident: his greatest gift, he had reserved for last. Moon’s third gift must either be a lesser one, costing her the contest, or the greatest gift she could bestow, which was the one the HoluKo wanted. Whether or not he won this wager, SutaKe would be the victor overall. “My next gift shall be grander still.”
“As shall mine.”
And so ended the second exchange of gifts, and so began the third, for SutaKe set his Stonemen and mirror-makers—and once again the weaving women—to work without delay. This gift, he knew, would require all the skill of all his artisans, and it would have significance beyond its form. Every effort did he make to keep its nature hidden from Moon, since Moon’s surprise would enhance the power of this final gift. But Moon could not hide her work like this. For three full days, while women wove, Stonemen knapped and mirror-makers polished, Moon glowed with a peculiar light, and SutaKe knew that her gift this time must be more than mere shaped stone or woven fibre.
At long last—nine days and nights since the contest began, and longer than the quarrels with Sun and Mountain combined—the contest was complete. Moon sat blue in the morning sky, faded from her exertions. SutaKe and his artisans felt much the same fatigue, though they could only sit upon the dusty ground about the fire. But at long last, SutaKe knew, he had won his wager.
“Moon,” called SutaKe. “Though thus far our gifts are matched, equal in weight of utility and form, I think this one can tip the scales. Behold.” And he held up a grand glass mask, of the sort that warriors wear in honoured battle. Its shape was the perfect likeness of a human face, carved to perfection by all the Stonemen. Its surface was the clear equal of Moon’s mirror, mimicking the world with the same sharpness, the same light, its sheen ground in by all the mirror-makers. And the straps that would hold it to the face were of a fine and cunning weave, devised by all the women of the tribe. Not before the quarrel with Sun, SutaKe knew, had there ever been such artisans as graced the HoluKo with their presence now. And so he knew without a doubt that not even the spirits on the white island could boast such skill in crafts.
Moon had few words. “Truly no item I can give could show such excellence as this.”
“Thank you, Moon. I made this mask so that, even if your gift was greater, even if you drifted high into the heavens as you intend, you would still have at least our likeness to keep you company. I hope that this is well-received.”
Moon smiled, but she shed stars also, so the HoluKo could see not all was well. “SutaKe, this is well-received indeed. So thoughtful is your gift that I am pained to say that you have lost this contest. No item I can give could match this mask, but what I give is greater than any item.”
“What your gift?” All the tribe wanted to know.
“It is life, SutaKe. Eternal life. Can your mask match this? Can it prevent my light from fading? Can it preserve my strength for all the years?”
Suddenly, SutaKe saw how this wager had been won. Mountain and Sun had been strong indeed, but Moon possessed a cunning that could rival his own. “No,” he whispered.
“Though I could see no trick in this contest when we began, the lavishness of your gifts let me see that no goods I had to give could win in this exchange. It was inevitable that now, at the end, I would have to yield at least a little of my power. I began to see how, even should I win, this contest of gifts would always serve you in the end. But I am not without cunning, SutaKe. My gift has won, and yet I still possess the right to soar away. Is this not so?”
“And do you remember what was agreed? As your contest was a trick like the two before—and I have won besides—I am now entitled to deal out a wrath even greater than my absence.”
“I remember. But this agreement was between us alone: whatever wrath you hold, give it to me, and do not punish the HoluKo for the deeds I alone have done.”
“It is already done. My gift is your new punishment, SutaKe. I will rise high in the heavens, as I had planned: high above the reach of the HoluKo, but higher still above your own. I have made it so you cannot die, and so not even in death will you see those who have been lost. For all eternity, you will walk the island alone: alone even among your tribe.”
The full gravity of the Moon’s curse now dawned on SutaKe. “Is there no other way?”
“No. There will be no more wagers. High in the heavens, I shall not hear them. And even if I did, there is nothing I could do. This gift has greatly weakened me. I cannot take it back any more than I could give it for a second time.”
“Then this final ploy has brought me only pain.”
“Not only.” Moon smiled. “Your gifts were kind indeed: kind enough that I will not rise quite so high as I had planned. Always will my light shine on the island, though looking up, you shall not see the spirits on my shores. And the journey will not be so long that the members of your tribe cannot come to me when their time is upon them. I am right to fear Man. Your contest has proved me right in this, but also it has made me sorry that it must be so. Keep your mask, SutaKe. You forged it for an enemy: I cannot take it as a friend.”
And so Moon drifted high into the stars—though not so high that she cannot be seen—and SutaKe put on his face of glass. He wears it still, as a reminder of that challenge, and to hide his shame. But now the island is ruled by Man alone: not Mountain nor Sun nor Moon can challenge his hard-won right. And so in that first and last defeat, there is enduring victory, that even this sad tale can tell.