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Chapter Two - Humiliation
The winters had eased up, the animals returned and the people feasted. It had been a while since we all tasted liver, warm and soft. The spring sun sent huge surges of freshwater pulsing down the rivers and we all moved from camp to camp. Since I was a boy I had dreamt of going out on those long hunts with the men, being away from my tent for weeks at a time, taking the dogs out into the vast expanses of valley floor and grasslands. But I had no-one to learn from, what few hunters we had were exhausted and us young men had been trained to catch small game, trap birds and reptiles and snakes, like women. What we hated most were the seasonal gatherings, where the other clan boys would mock us. One time an older boy left a carved ivory necklace by our fire, the laughter still rings in my ears. We sat that time and listened from the elders about the value of not fighting, not restoring the air. Our cheeks flush with anger as we were forbidden from seeking revenge. The summers brought the biting insects in clouds of humming fury, seeking out every pinch of exposed skin. I was just about ready to explode.
One lazy thick day we sat by a little paddling beck, watching the young ones shriek and clap as they stomped in and out of the water, the pebbles smooth and reassuring - no mud, no biters. Occasionally small fish propelled themselves to the surface, their mouths popping as they snatched little winged things down below.
“will we ever go out there Ikirtu?”
My closest friend stared off into the distance, the long grasses which marked the entrance to the flatlands softly undulating in time with the wind, like fronds in a current.
“one day. soon”
“I don’t see how. We watch the youngsters, we bait the snares, we fetch the wood and the water with the girls, we stay sat for every gathering, every story”. His tone was flat, but with a hint of grit. He continued.
“we’re like the mother bird, we can’t leave the nest except to furnish it better or bring food. We’re like the pine saplings, always hugging the mountain but never at the top”
He carried on this way for some time, I stopped listening and thought about my ivory spear thrower, or what was going to be my spear thrower anyway. So soft, and even warm after some time in the hands, like the embers of life could be coaxed back, the spirit of the tusked-ones briefly returning to live there, if just for a moment. I faded back in, my ears coming to their senses again.
“you’re not even listening to me!” he threw a punch which thudded dully into my shoulder. We both grinned.
The moment broke as one of the smallest slipped in the water and sat down sharply. He howled as the others giggled, clutching his buttocks. Playtime was over. We honourary lionesses must do our duty, even if we could feel our souls being tugged away to those waving stalks in the distance.
There is no silence like a moment or two at twilight, in the gloaming, when everything just stops for an instant. The world feels pregnant, a belly full of possibilities. Some nights like a first time hind, her fawn wet and gentle and utterly contained within itself. Some nights like those aggressive bellicose calves that dance in circles, shaking off the redness of their entrance, tossing their back legs and bucking with no rhythm. But the nights have become flat now, like the world has given up and the impish little gods which make each day different are hiding in the rushes, hiding in the caves.
Humiliation isn’t just the sense that someone is having fun at your expense - real humiliation is taking a lion cub and scraping down it’s claws, until they just have stubs. Breaking the talons of the eagle, or extracting the teeth of the serpent, and then observing them trying to pursue their instincts. Its pathetic. Humiliation is taking a boy on the cusp of manhood and turning his face from that horizon, pushing it down towards the ground, towards the water bladders and the seed grinders and thumb scrapers for cleaning the fat from delicate little hides. I dreamt of the wretched hole my grandfather had been dropped into, and my dreams became more vivid. Some days I was consumed by them, a deep nausea knowing his spirit was suffocating in a pit. In my vision I was whisked away to the mountain, feeling lighter than air, as if my very soul had been sucked out and flung like a dart into open skies. But the mountain was evil. It radiated a menace which I have never felt before, a haggard old woman sitting on your chest in the dark, a beast which lived so far down in the earth that water froze in huge stinging glass columns, salt in your lungs, a coldness which hung timeless - mineral, crystalline, inhuman.
“we should leave” I whispered quietly
His voice was excited, breathy.
“we should visit the healer first”
I knew he felt the same as me, about his own grandfather, about the squeezing of our lives into a dirt circle around our parent’s tent.
We went together the next day to see the healer. Under the gaze of the elder women, who turned their heads like corvids, impassive beaked faces. He listened to us, and he already knew our pain. He said my soul had been leaving the people and travelling far away, and that without protection, one day I would bring something back, clinging to my spirit. We said we would leave, and he agreed, under the condition that we didn’t visit the mountain until we had become men. I swallowed my pride, the healer had always been good to us boys. He also said something else - that we were going out there alone, without the support of the people, a condition which bares the bones, like plucking a baby from its mother’s furs. The best protection we had, he said, was each other, and we should make our bond unbreakable with the mingling of blood.
It took a week to prepare, to find the right raptor and snare it. They live high on cliff edges, and rarely visit the ground except to screech down on a ratling, or a hare, and carry them off to their fate. When we eventually got one we had to hide it, binding its legs, wings and beak shut. It stared lividly back at us, the yellow ring visible in the dark. Finally we waited until the fires had died down and stole out, the clouds covering our escape. Pressing our foreheads together, we both pushed down on its neck until it clicked, then quickly opened its breast and splayed the ribs. Making a hasty slit down our palms, we squeezed rivulets of our own blood into the chest cavity and detached the heart with a soft sucking noise. We took turns nibbling the warm muscle, small nips, letting the different bloods coat our lips and tongues. When it was gone we clasped hands - blood brothers - united until death. Our smiles like little beams of light in the dark.
A few days later we left for good. The elders knew something was wrong, but no-one confronted us. We drank three bladders of water before bed and woke in the quiet hours to piss, clutching our furs, our flints, our leathers, we walked off without a sound in the direction of the grasslands. ‘To look back is to still be a child’ as the men used to say. We didn’t look back.
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