As I mentioned back in November, I gave NaNoWriMo a try for the first time in 2010. I didn’t hit 50,000 words in 30 days, but I had a lot of fun trying. I posted regular updates to my friend’s blog at the time, and now I’d like to bring some of what I produced to Faceintheblue.
By no stretch of the imagination is this a finished work. I tried to merge my love of historical fiction with my recent appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut’s style, and I ended up with something in dire need of revision. That’s not to say I’m not happy with what I produced.
My concept was a simple one: What if someone had lived for ten thousand years and knew he was about to die. What would he have to say? What if his death was facilitated by a physical incarnation of death, and the protagonist came to love the harbinger of the end before the end of his life’s story? What would that look like?
It was too ambitious a project for thirty days. Maybe I’ll continue it as an ongoing project. I am resolved that this will never be something I formally seek to publish. In the meantime, here are the first couple of chapters of my work. I plan to publish more in the near future.
Life Loves Death, Chapter One
By Geoffrey Micks
I have a secret to tell you, my friends: There has never been someone quite like me. You are hearing the voice of a man who should not be.
I suppose that is a bad way to start, but every journey begins with a single step, be it tentative or confident, halting or bold. Is any beginning truly a bad one if it leads to greater things? There is probably a better way to set my story in motion, but let us not dwell too long upon my first words, for there is much to say and little time to say it. Indeed, I may not be able to finish this last task I have set for myself.
You will soon come to understand what an amazing thought that is for someone like me. It has been my gift –my special blessing and my loathsome curse– that I have always had enough time to do anything I wanted, absolutely anything at all.
I have memorized the complete works of Shakespeare because I had nothing better to do. I have mastered throwing decks of cards into a top hat across a room blindfolded for no better reason than because there was a period where I thought that would be a fun trick to show off at parties.
I have had such an abundance of what is commonly called a precious commodity that minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years and decades have been mere pocket change to me for as long as I can remember. Now I know that there are merely a handful of moments left to me –they fly away into nothingness even as I speak– and a new sense of urgency is creeping up upon me that I have never felt before.
Despite my need for haste, I know I must slow down. I must be calm and clear, for I want to leave something to posterity before my time is up. This thing that I am doing now is to be the last thing I ever do, so I must do it as well as I can with whatever time I have left.
When I say there has never been anyone else quite like me, I do not mean I am unique in the way we all are unique. My mere individuality is not what sets me apart from the rest of humanity. I am different, separate, and apart from you in a very real and very frightening way.
As I said, I have a secret. I must confess I hesitate to say it aloud even now, for in the few rare instances in all my years that I have shared this truth with someone, I have inevitably and inexorably been doubted, derided, mocked, scorned, envied, feared, even hated. I have been driven from many homes and communities for the thing that makes me different. I have lost the love and friendship of countless people I cared about because of something that is beyond my control and almost beyond my ability to explain.
That is why I’m speaking into this microphone. I know this recording device will not judge me. There will be no tears, no accusations, no stupid questions or demands that I speak sense. No one will strike me or shake me or try to punish me or take advantage of me in some way. You will hear this, dear listeners, outside of my presence and long after I am finally gone, and so your feelings towards me are of little interest to me.
That’s not true, really. Being unique is a lonely thing, and the thing I want most is your acceptance, your belief that I am what I claim to be. However fantastic my declarations, just give me a small fraction of your time on this earth to listen to what I have to tell you.
It is a secret, and people love secrets.
It is a story, and people love a story.
It is incredible, but I beg you to credit it.
It may take some patience on your part, but I know I can win you over. I hope that by the end you think well of me and remember me fondly. I would like to think someone will do that for me in the end.
Enough of this preamble! I have screwed up my courage enough to say the thing, to share my burden with you. Just let me take one deep breath and say it…
…I do not know exactly where I was born, or when, but I have seen pictures of the Black Mountains in Wales, and I know I spent my childhood there. They looked different then. They were not so green and lush as they are now; they were not dotted by sheep, and oak trees, and rustic country cottages. When I was young they were brown and barren, as the steppes of central Asia appear today.
As I said, I do not remember how long ago this was, but I will always remember my first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea: It was the same heart-achingly beautiful blue it is now. My great secret, in a nutshell, is that I did not have to get on a boat at any time between my birth and the day I sank ankle deep into the sand on the beach near where the great city of Marseilles now stands. I walked. I walked the whole way. There was no English Channel when I made that journey, and that means I must be between eight- and ten-thousand years old…
…Funny, even the steady red light of this machine seems to glare at me in crimson disbelief. No one ever accepts me when I say this thing, but it is true: I have been alive since before recorded history. I have wandered the earth and sailed the seas since the last Ice Age. In my life I have stood on every continent. I have gone by more than a hundred names. I have lived and loved and laughed and cried speaking scores of languages, most now long forgotten by everyone except me. When the gods made each of us, they made me different. They made me wrong. They made me to go on forever, while all the people I care about have forever stopped and left me alone to continue on without them.
I am not crazy. I am just who I am. Take my words with a grain of salt for now. As I said, time is of the essence: I will prove myself to you soon enough, but first I should get into some specifics.
I appear to be in my late forties, although the sun and the wind have browned and dried my skin and bleached my hair and beard so that those who have known me for much of their lives think me a spry seventy-something, and I am content for them to think that. I lived my childhood as every child does. When I was five, I looked five. When I was ten, I looked ten. By the time I was thirty I still had all the strength and stamina of a teenager, and that was a wonderful thing for a man living in that time: I was a mighty hunter then, much coveted by the tribes and clans of what would come to be called southern Britain and northern France. I did not keep a good reckoning of the years, but I know I outlived fifteen or twenty wives before I came to look much as I do now, and I have looked this way ever since, without change.
There are some other peculiar things about me that I must explain now, so that you do not wonder why I am not mangled and deformed by the accidents that happen in even a single lifetime, let alone the hundreds I have endured. It is not enough simply not to die: My body seems to have the ability one sees in some fish and amphibians to replace what is lost, given time.
When I lose a tooth, a new one grows in within five years or so. I have lost countless toes to frostbite, and I once lost three fingers on my left hand to some tangled rigging in a fierce storm: They all grew back within twenty years. I lost an eye once to a burning ember, and I wore an eye patch for long enough that I still sometimes feel it across my brow in my dreams. One day I took the patch off, and I could see again. The local priest claimed responsibility for the miracle, and his descendant were worshipped as god-kings for a dozen generations before being butchered for failing to bring rains to relieve a drought. I never liked them much anyway.
I haven’t experimented with how much I can lose. I have never lost an arm or a leg or my manhood, so I can only speculate that they too might regenerate given time, but can you imagine what a freak I would be for a century or two, with some pygmy appendage dangling off me? My curiosity has never gotten the better of me, and my prudent way of life has fortunately kept me from ever putting my theory to the test.
I have been punctured and stabbed and cut and burned many, many times over. I have even had tattoos, as cultures dictated. The marks all eventually fade. Nothing traumatic has happened to my body in two hundred years now, and so when I go to the medical clinic for a check up at the base of this mountain where I have most recently made my home they tell me I am as healthy as a horse. My physique is flawless, if I do say so myself. I can lift and carry, run and climb, jump and swim better than most men in the prime of their lives.
I have no physical complaints save one. I am sterile.
In all my life, among all my wives, I have had only seventeen children, and I suspect each and every one of them was the product of another man. I raised them all as my own, delighting in the opportunity to be a father. I abandoned each one somewhere between their twentieth and fortieth year when they asked me why I did not age. You would be amazed how quickly friends and family can become a lynch mob in the face of the supernatural. I have rarely tempted fate in sticking around long enough for someone to suspect what I am.
It is among my greatest regrets that I cannot beget, but perhaps when the gods gave me all these gifts they evened the scales and kept the blessing of true virility from me for good reason: If I were normal in that respect, the world would be populated with my descendents by now. Instead, I am a freak, destined to wander alone through history, making no contribution to the progress of humanity save what I can do with my own two hands and my own wits.
There is one last gift I have that I must declare, although I cannot say that I am unique in this respect. Perhaps many people have this ability? Perhaps many more would have it if they could live longer to truly master it? I do not know. All I can say is that by the time I had lived fifty lifetimes or so, when I closed my eyes and breathed deeply for a time and just let my thoughts wander, I could see the future.
I couldn’t and can’t harness this ability to a specific goal, I’m afraid. I can’t predict the weather, or tell you what horse will win a race, or anything really useful. I mean to say I could get snatches of what my life could be, might be, at some point in the future. Sometimes I can see what is possible three or four years away. Many times I have seen things hundreds of years ahead of time, and they were strange and frightening out of context.
I saw my first musket fire in a vision when men were beginning to bring copper and tin together to make bronze. Can you imagine what a fright that gave me? I saw my first ghazi ride out under a green banner to spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad –peace be upon him—- before the birth of Yeshua, whom you call Jesus. That glimpse was not enough for me to adjust my life in preparation for the sudden arrival of Islam.
No, I have seen little benefit from my prognostications. It has taken centuries to refine the power to a level of control where I can try to investigate the paths my life might take in a thorough manner, but I can almost do it at will now, and that is why I am recording this message to you.
I am about to die.
I do not know exactly when. I do not know exactly how. I do know that it will be very soon. This is the last place I will ever be. In the past when I looked into the future, there were always possibilities, options, paths to take or not take as I chose. I could be sailing on a ship around the Horn of Africa. I could be building a dam in America. I could be bouncing a neighbour’s baby on my knee anywhere in the world. No more. No more.
Now, no matter what I do, all I see is where I am in the present, and the people I already know walk through my visions appearing the same age as they are at this moment in time. In both my visions and in reality I sit outside my cottage, high up in the foothills of the Himalayas, somewhere along the border of India and Nepal. I have been here since the late 1960s, and there is no future beyond this place, this cottage. The wheat fields below are sprouting, but try as I might I cannot see the harvest. I have set a calendar on my wall, but I cannot see the page turn to next month.
The last sure thing I can summon up in my dreams of the future is a young woman, an American backpacker based on her clothes. She has a blonde ponytail, and a purple coat, and her backpack is blue with yellow trim. She will climb this mountain to visit me. I will welcome her, as I do all my guests, for I have lived these last few decades as a sort of guru. Then she will say something to me, something that will frighten me so much I cannot concentrate on my vision any further and my eyes fly open with excitement.
She will say, “I have waited a very, very long time to meet you,” and she will say it in my mother’s tongue. She will speak a language not heard aloud in this world since glaciers still stood two kilometers high upon the brow of northern Europe. That is impossible. It is more impossible even than my own unlikely existence.
I try to think what this means for my future, but when I try to meditate there is nothing, nothing, nothing! She arrives, and then I have no more tomorrows. It can only mean I am destined to die.
I am looking down into the valley now, and I see a distant figure walking through the tiny village there. She wears a purple coat. She has blonde hair, and the village boys are plucking up their courage to run up to her, to tug on her sleeve and ask for some rupees. She’s point up at my cottage. Surely she is asking the boys about me?
Oh, my heart! Who is she? What does she want from me? What is going to happen?
I am going to switch off this recorder now. I must go to the spring, fetch some water, set it to boil, and steep some tea. I am expecting a visitor.
Oh, yes. I am expecting a visitor.
Life Loves Death, Chapter Two
By Geoffrey Micks
There is a boy who climbs this mountain every day delivering newspapers and gossip that is more valuable to me than the newspapers. Today he tells me that a blonde woman has asked after me in the village, but she was told I don’t take in boarders. It’s too late in the day for her to climb up here and then go back down again before dark, so she has rented a room for the night. I have some more time to talk into this machine. More time to brace myself for whatever tomorrow will bring. Could it be my last tomorrow? What a thought… What an idea that after all this time, there might finally be an end to it.
I don’t want to die. Isn’t that a silly thing to say? Who wants to die, really? Still, I have been exceedingly good at not dying. I am the uncontested champion of not dying. A hundred generations and more have revered a man named Methuselah as the oldest human being, but if he ever really lived he didn’t even make it to one thousand years. Your typical olive tree outlives Methuselah, whereas I could tell the oldest olive tree alive a thing or two about its many-times great grandfather. I can remember a time when olive trees were a spindly weed, and their fruit was only edible to the birds.
No, I don’t want to die, but I have already told you I cannot escape my fate. If I could climb down from this mountain and run away to some far-off land and live for another ten thousand years, I would be able to see that. Instead my visions brought me here, and now they show me nowhere else to go. I must accept that, and face the end that finds us all at some point.
How many times have I held the hand of a dying friend? Many times I have heard, “I’m ready. It’s my time.” Well, it’s my time too, at last. I have had more of it than I’ve known what to do with, and if this is my end, I shall meet it with a smile and a story.
I have only kept my tale to myself all these years out of fear. There is so much I can say, now that I know I will not be punished for saying it. What should I tell you, dear listeners?
I suppose if this is to be my lasting legacy, I should properly introduce myself. People tend to do that with their name, but I confess I have the agony of choice when it comes to picking one moniker to give you. I have been many Muhammads, several Johns and Juans and Hanses, a handful of Quintuses, several Kanmis… Oh, I was happiest as Kanmi…
I could never go by Kanmi now, of course. It is too exotic, too unusual. I would be remarkable, and that is dangerous for a man who must not draw attention to himself. Do you know where Kanmi comes from? It was once just as common as Muhammad among a people that I dearly loved. When I walked the streets of Kart-Hadast and someone called out ‘Kanmi!’ many heads would turn, but that was so long ago that today only scholars know what Kart-Hadast once was.
Everyone has heard of it, of course. Today it is called Carthage, but to me it will always be Kart-Hadast, which means “New City.” The old city was the island metropolis of Tzor, and its mainland suburb, Ushu. Today they are together called Tyre, and those three places are special to me.
For five hundred years and more I was of those people. I could spend decades at a time there, and then go to sea for five or ten years to one of the far-flung trading posts that our commercial empire built, selling trinkets and gewgaws and olive oil and purple cloth. The people I traded with gave me gold and sliver and copper and tin and ivory, and I could sell that in the markets and bazaars of my adopted homeland for shekels, bankable shekels that bought land, land that I willed to myself over and over again.
I could return to Kard-Hadast or Tzor or Ushu as a new Kanmi and pick up my life just where I left off. It was so easy to tell those few surviving old friends who remembered the man who sailed away that I was a nephew or a cousin of the Kanmi they knew -–yes, isn’t the resemblance remarkable? He gave me his seal to watch over for him– and I would take over his estates to hold in trust upon dear old Kanmi’s return, but he never returned. Eventually I would inherit them outright, will them to my own ‘nephew’ Kanmi, and sail away again.
Yes, Kanmi was a good name to me.
Still, “Tempora muntatur, non est mutamur in illus.” Yes? The times change, and we change with them. Kanmi got a bit sticky after the Romans had their way with us. It was easier, eventually, to become a Roman myself, though I fought that for longer than was good for me. Eventually Quintus kept me in good stead, but it never rested as naturally on me as Kanmi. After a while, it made sense to be Muhammad. You could wander much of the world as Muhammad, but where I couldn’t be Muhammad I was Hans, or Juan, or John.
I have almost always chosen a common name, and when the day comes to assume a new identity I don my name as easily as I change my shirt. The important thing is that my name must never set me apart, for too much of my life has been about blending in where I have no business being.
Think on this: For the vast, vast majority of my life I have walked through existence without kith or kin. There has been no web of alliances that helped me secure a livelihood and enter a new community for a few years or decades. As such, countless times I have taken an unremarkable name so as to draw as little attention to my foreignness as possible as I begin a new life.
Today my name is Thomas Black. People think I am one of those crazy Englishmen who can’t get enough of India. When acquaintances talk about me, they say I am a baby boomer who came out here as a young hippy to find myself, and now I live off family money. From time to time word gets out to today’s generation of wanderers, backpackers, hippies and hipsters that I’m ‘living the dream’ up here on a mountain like a guru, dispensing wisdom and philosophy about the simple life. Sometimes they make a pilgrimage here to see what I have to say, and I do my best to amuse them.
No… No… If I’m to tell my story, I should start from the beginning. I will say a name I haven’t said out loud since the world was young and cold. When I was born, my mother and father named me Keer, and they had high hopes for me, the highest, for that is what Keer means: From a great height.
As I have said, I was born in the south of what is now called Wales. My mother and father belonged to a clan called the Jazuz, which means the Sky People. Our god was Jazi, which means Sky God. His physical manifestation was a great eagle of a species now long extinct that was big enough to snatch a newborn foal from out of a herd of horses. Jazi could carry a young equine in his talons straight up into the blue realm he ruled and then drop it to smash against the cruel rocks below. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Surely you can understand why we could worship a bird that could do such a thing?
After the long fall of his prey, Jazi would circle overhead for what seemed like an eternity. When the wind blew just right you could hear his mocking laughter at the power he held over the earthbound below. Eventually he would spiral down upon pinions so broad that they completely shrouded the young horse upon his landing. He would dip his cruel beak under his wing time and again, popping his blood-spattered head up only long enough to make sure no one would disturb his feast.
The raptor would eat so much while the mares looked on, snorting their despair, that at the end he was too heavy to fly for the rest of the day. That was when my father, Drew, would dance around the bird, shaking pebble-filled rattles and singing praises about the sky god’s greatness. That was my father’s role in the clan: He was our augur, the shaman who watched the birds and told us what the Jazi eagles understood about the world thanks to their high vantage point.
Drew told us they could see the rain and the snow coming. He told us they could see where the herds were grazing and watering. He told us when the berries were ready to be gathered in distant valleys, and when the salmon were swimming upstream to spawn. I suppose he just understood how weather and plants and animals behaved at certain times of the year better than the common man, but to us it truly seemed like our god shared his far-sight and fore-sight with my father, and that gave Drew great power over how we went about our days.
My clan was prosperous by the standards of the time. There were almost thirty families spread across the hills and valleys, living under leather tents throughout the short spring and summer. We would all come together to hunt and to fish and to wait out the long winters in a deep cave that we kept warm with roaring fires. As augur, my father was the undisputed holy man of the Jazuz. His only rival for dominance was our clan’s chief, Natt, whose sacred duty was to keep the winter fires going. If the fires ever went out, we would kill Natt and elect a new chieftain.
I liked Natt. He was a big man, and that was important for a leader. He was also a very kind man with a booming laugh, and he treated all the children of the Jazuz as well as he treated his own daughters. He never ate until we had all had our fill. He never slept until we had all rolled up in our sleeping robes for the night. He helped the young and the old with their chores, and praised the contributions of each and every one of us. He demanded no tribute save our respect for his authority, and we gave that to him gladly.
All except my father, that is.
Drew and Natt were of an age, and I was told that before my birth they were both good candidates to become the new chieftain when the Jazuz’s founding patriarch breathed his last. For Natt it was a friendly rivalry, but my father felt that Jazi expected him to rule our people one day. Drew was away on a pilgrimage to an eagle’s nest when the founder of the Jazuz failed to wake up one morning. My father never forgave Natt for being elected leader during his absence. After that fateful day Drew dedicated himself fully to translating Jazi’s wishes, and Natt was content to allow my father to watch the great birds and speak on behalf of our god at the clan councils. As chief, the final word was always Natt’s. My father was very unhappy about that.
Years passed. I was born, and my father rejoiced to have a son where Natt had only daughters. The two men aged quickly, as men did in those days. It became clear by the time I was no longer a boy that even were Natt to die, my father would be too old to be elected to take his place, so he transferred his ambitions on to me.
“When you are chief, you shall be our augur too, and then the Jazuz shall always do as Jazi wishes, and we will prosper!”
“Father, we prosper now,” I would say, and he would cuff me behind the ear at my impertinence.
It was not that I did not want to be chief one day. At that time I had no reason to believe that all men must not one day die, and I knew I would be a good candidate when Natt passed on to journey with Jazi through the sky.
My father was not content to wait, though. He wanted me to become chief while he was still alive, “So I can guide you,” he said.
So Drew hatched a plan to have our fires go out. A boy should never think of his father as cunning, for that is a word with heavy connotations. Still, I have not been a boy in a very long time. As an impossibly old man, I have the wisdom now to say my father was cunning, and his plan was a cunning one. He had full control over all aspects of its execution, and no one could see what he was doing until it was done.
As the summer drew to a close in my fifteenth year the families began to congregate around our clan’s winter cave to build up the stores that would see us through the coming blizzards.
“Jazi wants us to bring in many mink, martin, and fox furs to make fine winter garments,” Drew said at the first clan meeting of autumn. There was general agreement that this was a good idea, and so the clan’s children went out each morning to set snares and maintained trap lines through much of the following days instead of gathering the great mountains of wood we needed to see us through the winter.
“There will be enough,” Natt said reasonably. “The rest of us will make up the difference.”
Then one night my father heard my mother sneeze, and he proclaimed, “Jazi says we need to stock up on medicines!” Again, there was much agreement that this was a good idea, so our clan’s women went out into the shortening autumn days with their baskets to gather the herbs that cool a fever, settle a stomach, dry a runny nose, and all the other things that were within our limited power to cure or soothe.
“The men will bring in more than enough wood if we work together,” Natt declared. “We will chop down the trees by the creek and drag them up to the cave’s entrance. We can break them into smaller pieces as we need them throughout the winter.”
But when it came time to put together the work party, my father watched an eagle circle high overhead and then fly away to the north. “Jazi wants us to hunt the mammoth! He says there are mammoth not far away, and we will be able to set aside a great store of meat to see us through the coldest days!”
Again, this was not an unusual thing for him to say, or for us to do. Hunting mammoth just before winter sunk its icy fangs into the world was a common practice, for you could bury the meat and it would keep for months, almost as well as a modern freezer can store beef today. The Jazuz often organized such a hunt on the advice of the augur, and when Drew announced our greatest prey was nearby, Natt could not really argue against forming a hunting party to seek them out.
“You say they’re close?”
“I don’t. Jazi does!”
“Very well, then. If they’re close, we have the time.”
What else could Natt say?
I should pause for a moment to dispel a few myths. In my leisure time up here on my mountain I read a great deal about what modern men have to say about the past, and there is a popular image that stone-age peoples were a primitive lot. Too many of you picture us dressed in furs, a club over one shoulder, saying, “Ooga Booga” to one another, and dragging our women about by their hair. I would remind you that those are your own ancestors that you belittle. If they were not well adapted to surviving the Ice Age, you would not be here.
Let me ask you, were the native Americans a primitive people? Were the Inuit? They were stone-age people within recorded history, and they were well adapted to living in the natural world. So were we! When we prepared for our mammoth hunt, we kitted ourselves out in the very best that our times could muster.
We did not go around naked, or in ill-fitting furs. Imagine what it is like to live within a few hundred miles of a world of perpetual ice? It doesn’t take people long to figure out sleeves and mittens in a climate like that. We wore full buckskin clothing with fur parkas over that in the coldest weather, and they were beautifully decorated with quills and feathers, even sea shells from the distant coast. Everything was used to its best advantage. Even our hoods were trimmed with wolverine fur, for of all the furs available to us, the mist of our breath would never freeze on wolverine fur.
There is also a popular image of us stampeding mammoths off cliffs, or attacking them as they waded through swamps. Mammoths were much too smart for that. They could see the cliffs and the swamps better than we could from their great height. No, hunting a mammoth was to us like going to war was for later generations: It was an art, and a science, and a great campaign requiring luck and skill, careful planning and more than a little courage.
There was only one reliable way to hunt mammoths, and it began with finding a valley between two high ridges. For all their thick hair, mammoths preferred to stay out of the wind, so they sought the shelter the mountainous terrain offered them. Also, the grasses and sedges of the ancient steppes of Europe died at the tops of the hills first, so the best grazing by late autumn was always found on valley floors.
An additional consideration was that you could only hunt successfully in a given valley once in several generations. Mammoths somehow remembered where one of their own had died, and they would avoid the same place at the same time of year for longer than a man might live. It was this reluctance on their part –this long memory that is still marveled at in today’s elephants– that led the people who came to call themselves the Jazuz to move to where we lived upon my birth: Wherever they were before, my grandparents and great-grandparents had exhausted the valleys in their old hunting grounds. Killing a mammoth before winter was too great an opportunity to lose permanently, and so my clan moved to the winter cave of my youth when Drew and Natt were babies.
Once we had chosen our valley –with Jazi’s advice as translated by my father- Natt set us to digging a series of slit trenches in the hard ground with picks made of reindeer antler. This was to be my first mammoth hunt, and I swung my pick with great enthusiasm, tasting the rich meat in my mouth with every stroke into the near-frozen ground. It was back-breaking work, but of vital importance. Our lives depended on these holes, and so we dug them narrow and deep. We took the earth away on skin tarpaulins and dumped them into a stream: The mammoths must see no sign of our excavations for they were wise enough to sense the danger.
When we had dug our holes deep enough to completely conceal ourselves, we crouched and lay at their bottoms, and then we waited. We waited like men hundreds of generations later waited to go over the top and rush machine guns across a barren No Man’s Land. We clutched our spears to our chests, each of us trying to hide both our fear and our boredom from our fellows.
It was typical that we might lie in wait there for a day or two, living off smoked and salted meat from summer hunts of lesser animals until a herd of mammoths moved through the valley that was to be the death of one of them. Those lost days were the cost of securing more than enough meat to see us eat well throughout the winter, and Natt had agreed to commit those days at the clan council.
But the mammoth did not come.
The trenches were within shouting distance of one another, and so as the days went on a debate sprang up. “Where are the mammoths? How much longer must we wait?”
Drew would always say, “Jazi promises they are close!” Mornings stretched into afternoons, then into evenings. Every time we could see a Jazi eagle overhead through the narrow window of the sky available to us from the bottom of our trenches, my father would repeat, “Not long now! Jazi can see them!”
After five days our supply of food had run out. Thick layers of hoar frost coated us each morning. It was unbearably uncomfortable, crouched in a freezing hold, starving. Natt finally gave up the illusion of his patience. “There are important things to do back at the winter cave, Drew!”
“Not much longer!”
“You’ve been saying that since we got down into these holes!”
“Would you defy Jazi?”
“Jazi can see mammoths, but I can’t.”
“They will come!”
They went on like that for much longer than I will relate to you, their voices growing thin and raspy as they yelled back and forth to each other, partly because of the distance, but mostly from anger.
And then I felt it. Where the soft parts of my body were pressed against the cold, hard earth there was a soundless thump, a pulse of pressure as the earth shuddered. Somewhere not far away, a great weight was pressing itself into the ground.
“Silence!” Drew hissed. There could be no more talking: Our prey must not know we were there until it was too late.
The silent thumping grew stronger, and I held my breath for long stretches for fear the steam would rise up from our hole and alert the great beasts. Finally, a shadow was thrown into the top of our trench as something impossibly large blocked the sunlight above us.
I looked into the eyes of my kinsmen, waited for the signal. When? When? How much longer must we wait? The mammoths were here! Why were we waiting? My knuckles ached from clutching the shaft of my long spear; its heavy flint point trembled and jerked through the air above me as my hands shook.
“Now!” Natt bellowed at last.
As one, my clansmen and I burst into motion, rushing as quickly as our stiff muscles would allow. We had to scamper out of our holes as fast as humanly possible. I slipped and skittered my way out of the hole, tossing my spear up out of the trench to use both mittened hands to claw at the earth that had been my unwelcome home for these many days.
It all seemed to happen so fast: I was no sooner above ground then I heard another roaring command, “This one!” Natt had selected the mammoth that was standing between our trenches, and he pointed at it with his spear, waving his hunters forward with the other, urging on more speed, more speed! We must all act as one now, rushing this lone giant before the rest of the herd could recognize the danger we posed and organize the terrifying defense of tusks and trunks and feet that all hunters knew and feared.
Two brave men were tasked with cutting the hamstrings of the hairy elephant with flint axes while the rest of us drove our long spears into that trumpeting fury’s belly. It roared and bellowed and screamed at us, but there was nothing it could do. We were too many and too quick. I thrust my long lance deep into its side until I felt the hot spray of blood on my wrists, then I let go of my weapon, turned around, and ran back to my trench, my arms pumping up and down to give me as much speed as possible. I dove head-first into the trench, and three other men dove in on top of me.
Now the trenches were the key to our survival, for enraged mammoths knew no fear of men, and they could chase down a hunter in a matter of moments to gore us or trample us or toss us high into the air. Out in the open, only surprise had kept us safe. Now the herd was out for our blood as surely as I was soaked to the elbows in the sticky mess of one of their own. Only in the deep trench were our hunters safe, and we cowered there, just out of reach of the mammoth’s grasping trunks, until long after the sun had set.
The sounds in the bottom of that trench were like something out of a nightmare. The valley above us echoed with the anguish of our mortally wounded mammoth, and the squeals of impotent rage and grief of its fellows. Our prey could not move with its hamstrings cut, and so it squatted there between our trenches, moaning and wailing in pain as the spears in its belly slowly weakened and killed it.
The rest of the herd charged up and down, loomed over our trenches, rushed to succor their fallen friend. We all waited for what seemed like an eternity for the drama above us to run its course. We knew that mammoths in their grief could do strange things, and sometimes even after their fallen comrade had finally gone quiet and still, the herd might keep a vigil for several days, hoping against hope that their lost one would rise again.
I lay there with several of my clansmen for three days and nights, starving, waiting, praying, until finally all above us was quiet and still. Only then, only slowly, could we crawl out of our trenches, weak with hunger, to butcher our hard-won kill.
This, too, was a long process. First you had to cut the hide off with a flint knife, doing your very best with trembling hands to get as much of it as possible in one large piece. Then we dug down between the ribs and extracted a heart as big as my torso: This we ate raw, for we needed strength for the difficult tasks still to come.
Some of the hunters went down to a nearby stream and cut down long, straight saplings to make A-frames. We stretched our mammoth hide from this and past kills upon the frame, and then loaded the tarpaulins with meat. Meat! Glorious and wonderful red meat that coated us in gore as we worked. There were mountains of it, so that the A-frames each bore more weight than half a dozen men together. That would be the first load, and three-quarters of us took it in turns to haul the A-frames up and out of the valley and across the steppes to the winter cave where the Jazuz women had dug a pit into the permafrost to receive it.
Then we returned to the kill, bodies aching, and did it again. And again. Some of us, the lucky ones, traded out with those we had left behind to protect the dead mammoth from scavengers and butcher it further. I was young, so I was not lucky. I made nine trips, pulling my A-frame up and out of the valley, dragging it all the way home and back. Nothing was wasted. We took the long bones to make broth out of the marrow. We took the shoulder blades to make into platters and musical instruments. We took the long tusks to make into ornaments. We took its molars to make into toys. We took the long lines of its intestines to make sausages. We took its eyes to make magic. We took its feet to make into hampers and baskets. We took its sinews to make into cords and bindings. And above all, we took the meat. Every bit of it, for it had been earned at the risk of our lives and so was just as precious to us. We scrapped every morsel of flesh off the bones and loaded them onto our A-frames. When we were done, there was nothing but trampled grass, blackened with old blood, for the jackals to lick clean after our departure.
Our final return to the winter cave was greeted as the great triumph it truly was. We were conquering heroes who had ensured all would eat their fill throughout the winter. We had risked much and laboured mightily, but we had succeeded. What’s more, nothing had been lost to the many predators and scavengers who could have sought to rob us of some of our prize. Drew called for a great celebration, and an exhausted Natt could only nod his head that it be so.
We ate and drank around a roaring fire, enjoying all the delicacies of the mammoth that would not keep in the freezing ground. We danced, and sang, and re-enacted the hunt for the benefit of the women and children who had not been there, and then we basked in their admiration at our glorious victory.
Somewhere in that long night, it began to snow. It snowed heavily for four days’ straight, and when it was done snowing, we set out to clear our way down to the creek and broke through the ice to get water for drinking and cooking. The ice was so thick we had to use the reindeer picks. No one could deny that winter had struck early, and struck hard.
No one could deny that our wood supply was dangerously low.
Natt called a meeting, which was a much easier thing to do in the winter cave than during the summer months. Everyone gathered around the main fire, and he walked among us, speaking reasonably, putting a hand on a shoulder here, patting a head there. Every gesture was meant to be reassuring, for his words were anxious. “We have furs to work, and meat to eat, and medicine to see us through the worst that winter might do to us, but we need more wood. We must have more wood, or we won’t even make it to Winter Solstice.”
Drew looked at Natt with eyes of peace and content. I know now that he was thinking, “You won’t make it to winter solstice.”
At length, Natt proposed a plan, a laborious plan. We would work in teams of two and three. We would struggle through the snow and chop down the trees that he had suggested we cut during the autumn. We would drag them back through the snow to the cave. It would be slower and harder, but with good fire discipline to conserve the fuel we already had, we would make it work.
We all agreed, even Drew. It was what we had to do.
It was very hard work, my friends. Very hard. It was also very cold and hungry work, and so whatever anyone said about fire discipline, after a man returned from his shift, he was given a spot by a roaring fire and allowed to cook two handfuls of mammoth meat however he wanted. It was the only way to keep his strength up.
As the days wore on, most men found excuses not to go out every day. “Who wants to chop wood in a blizzard? The rest I get today will let me work harder tomorrow when the weather is fair.” You can easily imagine how it went, and there is little you can do to force a man out of a warm cave in the dead of winter.
The days were short, and the nights were long, but we were happy. This winter was easier than most, except for the wood situation. We had all we could eat, and many chores to do –working skins, making tools, braiding rope, raising children. We had each other, and it was a time of peace for all. All except Natt.
Natt worked twice as hard as everyone else. He had to, for the fire was his sacred responsibility. Even the boys who had married his daughters and gave every effort to help their father-in-law could not hope to match his dedication. He rose every morning from his sleeping robes, kissed his wives on their foreheads, set aside the cave’s daily ration of wood from our dwindling pile, stuffed a handful of dried meat into a satchel, and then waded out into the snow and storm to chop more wood.
The flesh melted off of him. His laugh grew hollow, and then one day it was gone altogether. The skin around his eyes and mouth grew tight at the strain he placed upon his broad, aching shoulders. The tip of his nose grew red and angry from the cold. He started going to bed earlier, too exhausted at his labours to stay up late with the other men. We watched him in his restless sleep: His arms made little jerky movements, as if he was cutting down trees even in his dreams.
In the dead of winter, help came from an unexpected source: Drew volunteered to work just as hard as Natt. Whenever Natt went out, so did Drew. I came out more often than most, but even I stayed in on the worst days: Never Natt, though, and never Drew. They worked every day, no matter the weather, and slowly, slowly, the woodpile began to grow instead of shrink.
I would like to say Natt and Drew closer during their efforts. Certainly Natt invited Drew and the rest of my family to join him at his personal fire more often. Drew spoke less about what Jazi wanted, and Natt let my father have the last word at council more often. I even caught them singing together as they came back from the distant trees, hualing piles of wood behind them. The Jazuz warmed to the thought that their augur and their chief were growing so close.
Then one day, Drew came back to the winter cave alone, waving his arms from a long way off to attract our attention.
“Help!” He called over the howling winds. “Help! Come quickly!” When he saw that we had heard him, he turned and began to retrace his steps back towards the distant trees.
We ran from the cave, but after a hundred paces or so we had to pick our way slowly, for the snow was never trampled flat very far from the shelter of our stony home. Too much snow fell for us to ever have a permanently beaten trail to the thicket where we all worked, and today was a blizzard: Only Natt and Drew would work among the trees in weather as bad as this.
“What is it?” We cried, chasing Drew’s struggling form through a world of swirling white.
“It’s Natt! He’s trapped under a tree!”
We struggled on, chasing our augur, until finally we came to the scene. Natt and Drew had been cutting down a tree. They had trimmed the branches as high as they could reach, and then set themselves to work against the trunk, taking it in turn to smash their heavy flint axes against the bole. Their long practice had made them experts at this, but something had gone wrong this time: The tree had come down in an unexpected direction and trapped Natt under the weight of the branches above. He was buried in the snow with much of the tree piled on top of him. We could only make out an arm, already partly covered in new fallen snow. The snow was pink with blood.
“Help me!” Drew cried, and we threw ourselves against the tree’s bottom, dragging it away from our fallen leader. One of Natt’s wives was our healer, and she rushed to her husband with her medicine bag, frantically digging to clear the snow away from his arm, then his shoulder, then his neck. Within moments her busy hands stilled.
“Why have you stopped?” Drew demanded.
“One of the branches must have hit him in the head. The back of his skull is caved in!”
We stood there, frozen in the snow; then the women started to howl.
I have seen many deaths in my long life, but that was the first one I ever cried over. The tears streamed down my hot face and dripped off the wolverine hair trim of my parka to freeze as little dots of sadness upon the front of my heavy coat. Natt was dead. Natt was dead, and there was nothing to be done about it but to take him home and wait for spring thaw to give him a proper Jazuz burial.
So we did.
That night we sat around the great fire, and we spoke in low tones about what the future of the Jazuz would hold.
“Drew should be our chief,” one of the women muttered without much enthusiasm.
“I am too old,” my father shrugged, holding out his arms as if his age was there on his sleeves, obvious to all. “The fires will only keep going if we have a chief who can work like Natt worked. I have tried, but I can’t keep it up forever. It must go to one of the younger men.”
We debated names, but all had seen how the effort of collecting wood had drained Natt. What man would want to be chief, knowing that he would either work himself to death or be put to death? Being chief was not like being a king in later times: It was harder work and more responsibility, and there were no luxuries that came with the title other than an authority that was earned, not given.
“What about Keer?” Drew finally suggested. “He’s still very young, of course, but Jazi loves the young! He’s strong, and willing. He’s worked harder than most of us already. If he can keep our woodpile stocked throughout the winter, he will have proven himself worthy as chief of the Jazuz. Plus, choosing a young man means we will have the same leader for many years. In just the way Natt was chief since Keer was a baby, so might Keer be chief until the infants of today are ready to take his place. Stability like that is good for all of us! Where he is inexperienced now, I will guide him until he knows the way of things.”
The decision wasn’t reached that easily, of course, for a winter spent in a cave gives much time for talk and debate, but no one else wanted to work as Natt had worked. No one else had the augur’s backing. I did not decline the offer, and so I was eventually elected chief of the Jazuz.
I was only sixteen.
So I spent the rest of the winter earning my place, for my father would never let me rest. He would kick me awake in the morning, shove a slab of steaming meat down my throat, set an axe in my hand, and push me in the back out into the blowing snow. I took three or four men with me each day, rotating them through so no man grew too tired except me. I worked until I could barely move, then I staggered back to the cave and sat very still by the fire. Usually I fell asleep there, and someone dragged me to my sleeping robes until I was kicked awake the next morning.
I have worked harder in my life, but not much harder. I laboured from before sunrise until long after its fall, and the thunk-thunk-thunk-screech-crash of my work filled both my waking and sleeping world. Still, I managed. I ached, but I managed. Under my buckskins, my flesh hardened into muscle as solid as the wood I worked. My skin was always gritty from dried sweat. My young beard grew ragged where frost split the ends. My hands grew strong and steady. I learned to swing an axe without any wasted motion or effort. I learned how to trim a tree to get the most usable kindling, and how to drag lumber through drifting snow as efficiently as possible. The Jazuz watched me work, and they approved of me.
It was about at this time that I gained my first wife. Her name was Pedj, and she came from a good family, the Reds, named thus because they dyed their hair red by some mysterious means that they kept to themselves. She had given birth to a baby boy the winter before, but he had not survived to see the spring. As for her husband, he had fled in despair from his dead son out into a winter storm. We never saw him again.
Widowed before her eighteenth year, her father, the patriarch of the Reds, offered her to me with a dowry of carved ivory bangles, necklaces, and bracelets. They wanted the chief’s children to be their kin. I was happy to have her, for she was a comely woman with a wry sense of humour and a laugh that set my heart at ease. Between you and me, dear listeners, she was also a wonderful lover.
She was my first, and she showed me the secrets of physical love with an openness and a generosity that still warms me even after thousands of years. How many young men have I heard tell about their first times with embarrassment and shame, or worse, false bravado? How many young women have I consoled after they went to their bridal bed a virgin only to find their lover was a selfish, careless oaf?
That was not my experience with Pedj. She had discovered many things with her first husband, and she showed them to me patiently, carefully, only as my tired but willing anatomy would allow. Eventually I learned things from her that have made thousands of toes curl since. I loved Pedj. I love Pedj. Wherever she is now, I hope she’s well.
Anyway, I should say that even though I was exhausted, I was happy, so happy. I saw myself through that long and terrible winter; the woodpile held out, thanks to my efforts. When spring finally came I served as the undisputed chief at Natt’s sky funeral, with Pedj beside me as my wife.
The Jazuz sky funeral is not unknown in this world even today: People who revere birds as we did still say that it makes no sense to burn or bury the dead. When the snows began to melt enough for us to journey to a nearby mountain top we erected a platform of wooden withies, and we set Natt’s frozen body upon it to melt. The platform was shoulder-high off the ground, so no earthbound scavenger could devour him with their unworthy fangs. We would leave that for the glorious beaks of the birds, especially Jazi.
It was considered a great honour to be eaten by Jazi and have a part of you fly through the sky with him forever. I intoned the sacred words along with my father, praying for that happy gift for our respected friend Natt. Pedj wept beside me, but not all the tears were mournful. We gave great honour to our fallen chief in committed Natt’s remains to the Sky God’s keeping, high on a mountain beside a cliff overlooking the winter cave. It was what he would have wanted.
Years passed, and I grew up into what everyone said should have been the prime of my life. I lead the Jazuz well, fishing and hunting. Winters came and went. I kept the fires burning high and bright, as was my duty. I did everything a chief should do, everything, that is, except what a man must do: I never had any children.
People whispered in the light of those fires: Pedj had already proven herself to be fertile. What did it mean, for two healthy adults to lie together as often as we did with no baby to show for it? The problem could not lie with her. It must be my fault.
No other woman was offered to me as a second wife, for why did I need one if not to mother more children? I did not mind. I had Pedj. I couldn’t give her a baby, but my people forgave me for it, for I ruled them as fairly and honestly as Natt had before me. Yes, they weighed me as a man, and they did not find me wanting for that one fault.
Everyone, that is, except my father.
Drew grew older too. His hair fell out, and his face withered and wrinkled so that he couldn’t help but scowl for the deep lines embedded on either side of his narrow mouth. My mother died in her sleep the summer of my thirtieth year, and because we had the luxury of time in those long summer days of plenty we sky-buried her in a ceremony worthy of a queen, though of course we didn’t have that word yet. We took her body up to a high bluff. We decorated her aerial bier with flowers, and we sang and danced for three days and nights until rigor mortis left her and her body finally relaxed into the final acceptance of death. We all lifted our faces to the sky and begged the sky god to come for her.
All of us, I should say, except my father. He never took his eyes of Pedj and I as he recited the sacred words. When the first Jazi eagle began to circle over the funeral, we all turned and walked away from the platform. I looked over my shoulder to see my father’s scowl. He scowled at me as if I were to blame for all his woes. I mistook it at the time for grief, but there was a plan forming behind that cruel mouth. In his younger years I would have called it a cunning plan, but old age had weakened my father’s wits. There was nothing cunning about the new designs taking shape in his tired, unhappy mind. His plan was simply monstrous. My father was a monster, though I did not know it then.
That night around the fire, Drew spoke simply to the Jazuz. “I am growing old. My beloved wife is dead now, and I am not long for this world,” No one murmured a protest, for he was among the eldest members of the clan by that time. “Who will be augur after I am gone?”
That surprised me, for since I was a young boy I had been told I would take my father’s place. Still, as chief I could not question my people’s augur in public. Someone else did, though.
“Why not Keer?”
“Keer is our chief, and he is a good one, but a chief needs an augur to confer with,” Drew said reasonably. I saw the people shift in their positions around the fire at this, but it made some sense to me: For as long as I had been alive, the chief and the augur had been two different people, two different opinions on what was right for the Jazuz. When my father was gone, did I not want someone to debate with? Another viewpoint to test my plans against? Would my people be better off if I was the only voice of official authority?
“Who do you recommend, father?”
“It is not who I recommend. Jazi knows who he wants,” Drew said. There were murmurs to that too. I could hear people whispering, and I felt the ground drop away from me in this situation. My father had something he wanted to say, and he was giving it the official endorsement of the sky god, something he did not often do blatantly since I became chief.
“Who does Jazi want?” Someone asked.
“Let me ask you, friends, who does Jazi want to be closer to? Who has he given a position of power, but has so far denied any blessings upon?” Drew looked around the fire. The Jazuz blinked, for no one had an answer. It didn’t sound like any of us.
“I don’t know,” I said at last.
“That is why Jazi doesn’t want you, Keer! You don’t know Jazi’s mind, even when the answer should be obvious to you!” His tone was shrill, and there were more murmurs around the fire, for it had been many years since the augur used such venom when speaking to the chief. Natt had still been alive when Drew had last spoke to the leader of the Jazuz as he would to a misbehaving child.
“Who then, old man?” I asked.
“Why, your wife, of course!”
All eyes turned to Pedj, and she sat bolt upright in surprise. “Me?”
“Oh, yes! Did Jazi not see fit to make you the chief’s wife? Have you not been the chief’s only wife for all these years? You are the most powerful of all the Jazuz’s women, and yet he has robbed you of the blessings of motherhood. He wants you to have a closer relationship with him, and in exchange, he will give you a son!”
Now there was uproar. Many questions were asked all at once, but I called for silence. “Jazi has told you this?” I asked. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. Jazi had some plan for Pedj? There was a supernatural explanation for my infertility? It was not my fault? This was heady stuff to a sterile man. In that moment, I wanted to believe.
“Of course! Jazi has always favoured Pedj. He was jealous of her first husband, and that is why he went mad. He is not jealous of you, the leader of his people, but he wants a closer relationship with Pedj. Let her be our new augur, and the sky god will give you the baby you have wanted all these years.”
It made sense to me. It made sense to a lot of people. I turned to my wife. “What do you think?”
“If… If it’s what Jazi wants…”
“Then it’s agreed! We will start tomorrow!” Drew announced, and so they did.
Pedj spent the long summer days wandering the hills and valleys with my father, learning the lore of Jazi. She spent the short nights with me, and we made love as often as we did as teenagers, for there was new hope now that we would be blessed with the baby Jazi had long denied us. Between our sessions of passion I asked her what my father was teaching her, but she was always vague about it. I did not press her: I was not to be the augur, after all. Sacred mysteries were to be her business, not mine.
Summer wore on into autumn, and Pedj’s monthly flow still arrived, as regular as the waxing moon. I began to get short-tempered with Drew at our council meetings, and, worse, I started to snap at Pedj. “Why isn’t Jazi giving us a baby?”
“I haven’t really joined with him yet,” was all that she would say.
She stopped dying her hair red, saying that Jazi didn’t like it.
“Does that mean you are communicating with him?”
“In a way…” was all that she would say.
I came to resent her distance. A divide formed between us, but I was helpless to close the gap. I began to lead my hunters out on long trips to gather in a winter store of meat, but really I did it so I would have some time apart from my wife. Many nights sleeping alone out on the steppe I had terrible dreams about her, but her hair was always crimson and scarlet in those dreams, as if she had not only found a way to dye her hair red again, but to obtain a more vivid shade than she had ever managed before. I would awake to find my face was wet with tears.
Then one day, one of my nightmares came true.
I was coming back to our summer camp at the base of a high cliff, and I heard a woman crying in anguish. I rushed up to her and asked what was wrong, and she said in a rush, “Oh, Keer, you must come see!”
She led me high up the side of the bluff, and there lay my Pedj. The leggings of her buckskins were around her ankles, and she seemed to have tripped and fallen. She had struck her temple against a rock, and her head and hair was covered in sticky red blood.
I rushed to her, but there was nothing to be done. She was dead. I ordered the woman who had led me to this place go to gather the clan, and then I carried my dear wife down to the stream at the base of the hill to clear her up before her sky burial.
I got her to the water, and for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to just dunk her in, clothes and all. Pedj was not a carcass to be washed. She was my wife, and what was worse, my last words to her had been harsh ones. I felt the need to be delicate with her, to be kind to her. As my eyes began to mist over, I gently removed her long-sleeved buckskin shirt and set it to one side, and then unhooked her leggings from around her ankles. Cradling her naked body across my lap, I knelt by the stream and cupped my hands in the cold water to wash her hair and face.
As I worked out the clotted blood, I wept, so that my eyes swam and I did not realize what I was seeing until she was clean again. Her skin was white as snow where her clothes had kept the sun from her, but that was not what finally arrested my attention. There were bruises, black and blue bruises, on her upper arms.
I blinked away the last of my tears, trying to think what these marks could be from. I reached out to touch them, and my fingers and thumb neatly lined up with the blotches. Someone had held her arm tight enough to leave a deep bruise? I placed my other hand over the other arm’s bruises. Both arms?
Then I saw it. I saw what must have happened. My father must have taken her somewhere, held her down, pulled down her breeches… She had gotten away from him, tried to run, tripped…
Then all I saw was red for a very long time. When I came out of my daze, the woman was back with some of my clansmen. I told them what had happened in a low monotone. They went as pale as my Pedj; one of the women wretched into the stream at the thought. The men ran back to their camp to fetch their spears. I showed the marks to everyone else, so no one would doubt me, and then I dressed my wife again.
I carried her in my arms up to the top of that cliff, the people of the Jazuz forming a procession behind me. My father stood at the top of the bluff, waiting.
“It is a terrible thing, Keer. She rejected Jazi. Let us pray that he does not turn his face away from his chosen clan.”
“I did not come up here to pray, Father.” My voice sounded hollow to me.
“What do you mean?”
“I came to make you answer for what you’ve done.” Still hollow, as if I were hearing an echo of myself speaking from the back of our winter cave.
“I? I have done nothing. Jazi has rejected Pedj as the new augur. She must have angered him in some way.” He held his hands up to the sky and bowed his head, reverently.
It was too much for me. When I spoke again I heard myself clearly, as if my ears had popped. I was shouting, “You did it! You forced yourself on my wife!”
He lifted his chin to look at me, but not a muscle in his face moved. I saw it then in his eyes: Not only was it true, but there was no remorse at all. His eyes were black as night, and there was no soul in them. “If you were ever going to have children, you would have done it by now, my boy. If you’re not man enough, then I am, and then some!”
The Jazuz behind me gasped. My mouth hung open too, but I slurred out a strangled, “What?”
Drew exploded now, waving his hands above his head at the sky as he should at me. “Do you think I wanted you to be chief so that you could have no children of your own? You are my progeny: Where are your progeny? Our line is supposed to rule the Jazuz for all eternity. Jazi wills it! Would you defy the sky god?”
It was my father’s most dire threat, but I still held my dead wife in my arms, and he was responsible for it. “If Jazi wants me to have children, there will be children. If I can’t do it, then it can’t be done! That is the sky god’s will!”
“Jazi wants grandchildren!” Drew screamed.
“Jazi’s grandchildren will be birds!” I shouted back.
“Fool! I am Jazi!”
I froze for a long moment, and then I set Pedj down on the ground between my father and I. “You’re Jazi?”
“Of course!” He said it, just as he always said, ‘of course.’ He said it as if it was painful to him how obvious it was, while the rest of us could not see it at all. “Of course I am Jazi, and Jazi rules the Jazuz. Jazi will always rule the Jazuz!”
We did not have a word for dynasty, but that is what my father envisioned. I knew then that he had wanted this since the Jazuz first came to our winter cave. He was supposed to be chief, and his son, and his grandson, and on and on, but always because of him, always for his glory. We did not have a word for god-king then either, but that is how he saw himself. He was Pharaoh and Caesar and Chinese Emperor before any of those things existed. He was mad. He believed apotheosis was real, and that he was the physical incarnation of god on Earth.
I had a sudden thought. “Natt didn’t die from a tree falling on him, did he father?”
My father laughed. He stood there, his back to the cliff, the sky above him, and he through out his arms to either side and laughed. “Of course not! Jazi waited for the false chief to grow weak, and then Jazi waited for the false chief to be alone, and then Jazi gave the false chief a little tap on the back of the head.”
“Then you chopped a tree down on top of him to make it look like an accident?”
“I am too old to be chief. It had to be you. They wouldn’t have chosen you without my support, and they wouldn’t have supported me if-—“
“If they knew you killed Natt.”
“It was Jazi’s will for him to die!”
I heard one of the women behind me cried out, and I held a hand behind me to keep the clan from rushing my father. “But you’re Jazi!” He just laughed again. “And Pedj? Why did she have to die?”
“She didn’t. It was her fault, not mine. She just had to let me father the baby you couldn’t give her. Her son would have grown to be chief, and his son after him, and they all would have been augurs, and the Jazuz would all have worshipped Jazi, Keer, but she ruined it! She wouldn’t believe her god, and then she ran away and hit her head. That’s all there is too it. It was an accident.”
“An accident? What happened to Jazi’s will?”
This time he had no answer for me. I turned to face my clansmen. “Are the Jazuz ruled by Jazi, or are they ruled by the Jazuz?”
This confused them, for I had been their leader since most of them were small. Drew did not give me a chance to clarify what I meant. “Have we not lived well under Jazi’s rule? Has there not always been meat, and fire, and medicine? Have we not always had a warm and dry place to sleep? That is because of me! That is because of Jazi!” He thumped his chest with his open palm.
“We would have had all of that without you, Drew,” I said.
“I am Jazi!” Spittle flew from his frothing lips.
“Jazi is a sky god. Jazi can fly,” I said, stepping over Pedj’s body so that I was eye to eye with him.
“I am the sky god! I am the eagle! I am Jazi!”
“And who am I?” I asked.
He blinked at me, not understanding. “You are Keer…”
“Yes I am,” I said. Then I took my father by the shoulder, spun him around, and I hurled him off the cliff.
Within my first lifetime I learned two important things that have always stayed with me: First, no man is a god on earth. I have better claim to it than most, but I am just a man, and so was my father. Men are just men, whatever they say.
Second, man cannot fly. My father believed he was an eagle, and if sheer belief was enough, he would have soared through the sky he claimed to rule. Instead he fell from a great height –from a Keer—- screaming in terror. I watched him fall for a long, long time, and then he splattered himself across the boulders at the base of the cliff.
I turned to my people and said, “Take care of my Pedj, and take care of each other.”
Then I climbed down to where he fell. I had to scoop up what was left of him with my hands and pour him a fistful at a time into a shallow grave. Yes, I buried him in the ground. I gave him to the worms instead of the birds. Then I walked away from the Jazuz, and I never heard of them again.