First edition cover
Laszlo Acs (Victor Ambrus)
Shifting Sands is a short story for younger children first published in 1977 by Hamish Hamilton and illustrated by Laszlo Acs. A young maiden betrothed to the Chief falls in love with a young hunter, and natural disaster befalls their Stone Age village.
In the prehistoric vilage at Skara Brae, Orkney, a twelve-year-old-girl named Blue Feather is chosen by Long Axe, the tyrannical Chief of the village, to be his third wife when she turns fourteen. Her perceptive father Moon Eye is reluctant, but Long Axe is considered to be a priest-king protected by the gods.
A year later, Blue Feather cuts her foot on the beach and is assisted by Singing Dog, a young hunter. They become unhappy with Blue Feather's engagement, but Blue Feather tells Singing Dog that it is useless to threaten Long Axe. Nevertheless, when the Men's Side go to the autumn hunting, Singing Dog challenges Long Axe for the credit of killing a sow and is restrained by Moon Eye.
During the autumn storm season, Moon Eye warns Long Axe that a three-day gale has set Long Dune moving toward the village, and Long Axe declares that the Ancient Ones are angry and summons the People to a sacrifice. After threatening various villagers including Moon Eye, he points out Singing Dog. He is poised to strike when Blue Feather notices the Sand sifting in through the smoke hole and sets the meeting into chaos. Singing Dog knocks the sacrificial knife from Long Axe's and snaps off the protective Priest necklace, and Moon Eye stabs Long Axe with the hair pin he had given him for Blue Feather. The People scatter to rescue their belongings, and Long Axe is gored by his frantic herd bull. The People spend the night in the open, returning the next day to find the village completely engulfed.
Long Axe's body has been dragged clear by the bull, and the villagers observe that he was not, after all, magically invulnerable to Singing Dog and Moon Eye's attack, nor have they been struck down by the gods. Moon Eye takes over the leadership of the People and leads them out to found a new village away from the Sand. Blue Feather declares herself Singing Dog's woman, and they fall in together.
"In the winter of 1850, a great storm swept across Orkney. It uprooted the few stunted trees that the winds of other winters had allowed to grow. It hurled fishing-boats far up the beach, and smashed them like broken-backed sea-beasts on the rocks. It tore the roofs from cottages - and it stripped the binding grass from the great dune on Mainland, that the folk of those parts called Skara Brae, and set the sand dune moving. And there, as the sand drifted away, laid open to the sky for the first time in three or maybe four thousand years, were the remains of stone huts. Cold stone huts that had once made up a village, where people had lived and died and loved and hated, and told stories round the fire."
Wikipedia suggests that the Skara Brae village was actually abandoned sometime between 3180-2500 BCE.
- Long ago: The village was founded and Blue Feather's house built.
- Three times since the founding of the village: the Sands have buried it and it has been rebuilt. The present village was built under Long Axe's father.
- Fourteen years ago: Singing Dog born.
- Twelve years ago: Blue Feather born.
- Spring, New Moon: Blue Feather joins the Dance of the Women's Side; Long Axe demands her of Moon Eye the next day.
- More than a year later: Blue Feather and Singing Dog make friends. Singing Dog recently made a man.
- Summer's end: Blue Feather and Singing Dog acknowledge their predicament. A few days earlier, Long Axe killed Speckle Hide.
- Autumn: the Men's Side dances the Autumn Dancing. Singing Dog's first big hunt. He challenges Long Axe for the credit of killing a wild sow. The People talk.
- Autumn gale season: a three-day storm. Long Dune covers the village on the third night. The storm drops by the next morning and the People abandon the village.
- 1850 CE: The village is uncovered by another gale.
- Blue Feather, a twelve-year-old maiden, prospective third wife of Long Axe
- Fish Leap, threatened with sacrifice, corrals the herd bull
- Grey Gull, threatened with sacrifice, corrals the herd bull
- Long Axe, "not only the Chief, and the Lord of the herd bull...he was a Priest of great power"
- Moon Eye, Blue Feather's father, who sees things; lost his left eye at walrus hunting when young.
- Running Fox, contemporary of Singing Dog, threatened with sacrifice, corrals the herd bull
- Seal Woman, "Blue Feather's mother and the chief woman of the house"
- Singing Dog, Blue Feather's love interest, recently initiated
- Speckle Hide, has his head split open by Long Axe on patently false accusation of poisoning
- Thrush Stone, drummer, threatened with sacrifice
- The village of the People (Skara Brae, Mainland, Orkney). A village of interrelated herders and hunters, with huts built of flat beach stones and clay with whalebone rafters, linked by low alleyways and littered with garbage.
- Long Dune, seaward of the village, blown inland by the gale.
- Shifting Sands, Antelope Books: Hamish Hamilton, 1977. Illust. Laszlo Acs.
- Young Australia Language Development Scheme, Level 23. 1977-79.