Foreword: Way back in 2013, me and some friends were dunking on Film Critic Hulk, whose gimmick we thought was undercooked; he should review films entirely in character as the Hulk, instead of just writing in all caps with the occasion ME AM HULK thrown in. I speculated about what an actual in-character film critic superhero would be, and naturally I created Film Critic Superman, a version of the character whose most unkind words about a movie would “well, they tried, that’s the important thing.”
One thing led to another and I wound up writing a story that was my answer to the question that everyone was cracking wise about in 2013: why does it look like an S if it’s an alien glyph that means hope? I thought about it, and about the old miniseries “The Kents” by John Ostrander, Tom Mandrake and Tim Truman – which featured a familiar glyph on an Iroquois blanket – which informed this story about culture’s passage from events to iconography.
It’s from 2013 and I like to think my writing’s improved since then, but here it is – just in time for Superman Day, 2019, one of several Superman-related holidays I should probably know better than to have feelings about. Hope you enjoy!
It was the summer of the year, the red sun of Rao rising over the Sea of Banzt, and as soon as last year, the boy would have taken the time to admire its beauty. But the boy was not a boy any longer, and his mind was weighed with heavy thoughts, as he trekked across the white sands towards the hut of the wise woman.
He wore his light chain tunic, which shimmered with the distinct golden hue of the finest metals the court’s smiths could fashion. He wore his headband, which itched in the heat. It was bad luck to remove it, however – the headband was a signifier of the value of the unseen attack. His hair was the jet black common to the court of Elsoramelavin, though his eyes were a far-from common light blue. His beard was still thin and patchy, but it grew thicker day by day. He missed being clean shaven. It was days like this that he missed being simply a boy.
As he walked, the wise woman’s hut grew larger in the distance. As he approached, he saw her putting out her washing. He called out, and she did not respond, but that was to be expected. She was old enough, and her hearing was doubtlessly not what it used to be.
He closed the distance, cleared his throat, and tried again. “Wise Elder Loraventainglivsten – “
“I heard you the first time, young prince. I am old and I consider my words before I speak. Help me with my wash, then you can unburden your spirit.”
He balked, the words I am Prince Yat of the Elsoramelavin Court and I do not do the work of a washerwoman forming in his throat, but he caught himself. He’d gone to her, after all. His pride was best swallowed.
He helped her hang her clothes, setting aside his tunic. By now, Rao hung higher in the sky. After the last of the woman’s wash was attended to, she turned to him.
“I know about the messenger.”
Prince Yat swallowed. “Even now, atop thunderstriders and his tamed h’raka, Lord Hane marches towards our lands. My father sends me. I seek wisdom.”
“Hmm. He sent you here, then? He must be desperate.” The woman slowly carried herself inside her hut. “His court advisors do not look well upon the old ways of the Unfolded Path.”
“We can’t defeat him directly. We need subterfuge.”
“Do you. Well then. Wait, and I will show you how to find the cunning that you seek.”
Yat waited, and the wise woman sat, mixing herself something in a bowl. “Do not breathe this. There are beings along the Unfolded Path, beings so large they cannot fit in three dimensions, and you do not want them bedeviling you or your heirs.”
Yat nodded. The woman set the bowl over the smoldering fire inside her tent. She leaned over, inhaling deeply. She was still. Yat waited.
Yat jumped, looking behind him, but no, nothing was there. He could have sworn, though – he could have sworn – something had tapped him on the shoulder…
“I have your solution, Prince Yat of the Court Elsoramelavin.”
Yat held his tongue, not wishing to rush her. She slowly stood, her gaze flicking over Yat’s shoulder for a moment, before returning to meet his eyes. “You must touch the brow of the Jeweled Serpent.”
Yat blinked. “What? The one that lives in the spires? Its very touch brings death! It’s not possible – “
“Silence, boy. It is possible. And to find the solution to your woes, it is what you must learn.” She waved in the general direction of the mountains. “And unless your ever-wise court advisors have a better idea, you had best set out with due haste. Bring me back one of its spines as proof.”
The trek itself would have been enough to kill him even a year ago, but Yat had practiced well, his muscles firmer and his footsteps steadier. So he only sprained an ankle in the climb and possibly broke a rib.
The Jeweled Serpent was legendary – it was said that merely touching it would bring death, for it was covered in poisonous stingers that would break apart once they entered the blood, carrying death throughout the Kryptonian body in minutes. It had once been a rite of passage, until the then-tribe of Elsoramelavin had lost too many young men and women to its touch. There was tradition, and then there was stupidity. There was a line, even if right now, Yat found it greatly difficult to see.
The wind was cold, seeping through his armor, which he realized was useless and in fact, a hindrance. So he buried it at a marked spot, not wishing to lose the fine workmanship that so much effort had gone into just because it was presently inconvenient. Thus unencumbered, he climbed.
By the end of the second day, Yat was ready to face the entire Hane army rather than move one more inch. By the beginning of the third day, Yat continued on anyways. At the midway point of the day, that’s when he saw it.
It didn’t slither so much as glide across the crags and rocks of the mountain. It licked at the air, tasting it. It shone red, red as the sun, and Yat was frozen, unsure of what to do.
He still had his sword. If he got lucky –
No. No, only a fool relied on luck.
A trap, then. Rigging rocks to fall on it –
Yat watched as it bit a chunk out of a rock with its jaws, and discarded the plan. Anything that tough would just get mad.
So Yat watched, and waited. The wise woman had sent him here to learn. He remembered the lessons of the hunt, and built himself a nest to observe his prey.
He watched as it licked the air, gliding across the side of the mountain, and he watched its jaws crush rocks into powder with little effort. He watched as the spines that coated it flexed and flattened, and he watched why. It looked relaxed after a meal. But it wasn’t just eating any rock that it came across. There had to be something he couldn’t see.
The days passed. Yat found his provisions dwindling. He had a horrible nightmare where everything was backwards, including his name, and wondered if he hadn’t caught a whiff of the wise woman’s incense without realizing it. He snapped awake with a shock, worried that he’d lost his prey, but no, peering out of his nest, he could see it, sluggish and relaxed and content, slithering back into its lair.
Yat cast his gaze towards the leavings from the serpent’s meal. He squinted.
Then he scrambled out of his nest, and began a hasty climb down the mountain.
Yat returned a day later, his pack bulging with rocks.
He thought of how the snake had cracked the rocks open like eggs – just like eggs. He thought of the cutaway rock that adorned his mother’s study, the rich crystalline formations of the hollow interior fascinating him as a child. Stupidly, he’d never asked her how they formed. Smartly, he’d been able to figure it out through trial and error anyways.
After cracking open three dozen rocks, he’d figured out a system. After cracking open a hundred, he’d confirmed it. And so, Yat returned to the lair of the Jeweled Serpent, and carefully laid part of his finding before its lair.
Yat waited, and watched, and as the day passed, had to check to see if his eyes were playing tricks on him – but no. Touched by the sun, the crystals inside were spiraling out, forming new, intricate and beautiful formations, a work of art kissed by the light of their god.
The first day, the Jeweled Serpent was wary, so Yat added more. The second day, it was still wary, and so Yat waited. The third day, the beast finally overcame its distrust of the pre-opened rocks and ate a few. The next day, a few more.
As the creature grew used to his scent, Yat added more and more, and finally, as the week drew to a close, he ventured forth, approaching the serpent, its scales glittering red in the waning sun. It was relaxed, well-fed, and content, and in no mood for a struggle. Every spine on the creature’s skin was slack.
No fear. I can’t be afraid. If I’m afraid, it’ll smell it with that tongue. Yat took a breath to steady himself, and reached out towards the Jeweled Serpent’s brow.
Yat returned, the spine in one hand and his golden chain tunic in the other flush with pride and ravenous with hunger.
As the wise woman Loraventainglivsten fed him, he explained the revelation he’d had. The stories that had been told about Lord Hane – an invincible army, a brutal tyrant – there had to be more to Hane than that. He was no invincible monster whose touch brought death; he had the same motivations as any other man, and those motivations could be reached, accommodated, compromised with.
And so, Yat Elsoramelavin returned to court with his proposal, to the interest of his mother and father and the dismissal of the advisors, who were as blind as Loraventainglivsten had said they’d be. With his parent’s tentative blessing, he rode forth under a flag of peace, yellow tunic glimmering in the light of Rao, and surrendered in exchange for an audience with Lord Hane, who was not dripping with the blood of a dozen freshly slain virgins as the tales had told, but had a weathered yet kindly dark-skinned face, and a daughter he had trouble saying no to.
Yat discovered that the crystals that the Jeweled Serpent ate were what Hane was after. Hane’s advisors had discovered that the true potential of the crystals was hidden away, literally – never touching the light of the sun and growing in strange and beautiful ways. Armed with this knowledge, Yat proposed a bargain. The Court of Elsoramelavin and its peoples knew of the locations where the crystals could be best found, and Lord Hane’s people in turn knew of the best way to explore what their potential truly was. They had more to gain by sharing than they did by war.
Hane’s advisors wanted war anyways, and as Hane mused, they sputtered louder, rife with frustration that all their well-drawn battle plans were being spoiled by some child. After realizing that his life was in danger, it is said that Yat and Hane fought back to back, fending off a dozen assassins sent by warmongers full of bloodlust, protecting Hane’s young daughter with a ferocity that would send even the fabled Jeweled Serpent slithering back into its hole.
His life defended by a young man with nothing but an ideal of peace he strove towards, Hane accepted the proposal, and thus because the first of Krypton’s Awakenings, spurred by the miraculous technology that came forth from what both courts called “raotouched crystal,” later known simply as “sunstone.”
As for Yat, his deeds became legendary in the Court of Elsoramelavin, and the tale of the man who defeated war with kindness became so exalted that they wore the tale proudly on their shields and amongst their finest heraldry – the red serpent framing the iconic rich gold of Yat’s famous tunic.
As the centuries passed, much of the tale was lost, and many details were forgotten. But as the Court of Elsoramelavin became the Kingdom of Elsoramelav, the Elsorame Company, the Elsora Collective and finally, simply, the House of El, the symbol remained, the red shape of the serpent and the gold chain of the man that were both more than they appeared to be.
The symbol lent comfort to many a troubled soul, especially during the last days of Krypton where a desperate couple hatched their desperate gambit. Its meanings, too, changed over the centuries. It meant “the triumph hidden in the darkest of hours.” It meant “no man, no cause, and no day is truly lost.”
In the end, on the planet Krypton, it meant hope.
On the planet Earth, it means much the same thing.