Muleki looked about and scrambled as best he could with only one good arm to gather his things, then slipping and stumbling, made his way through heaps of old bones and rock and ash. He shut his ears to the bones as he picked his way through them with care. Of habit, he would try to reach or balance with his dead arm and the effort sent him tumbling. Each time he was grieved anew with the loss. He finally stopped and tied the useless thing tight to his chest.
By dusk, he could see a bit of the ledge where the stone hut once stood. As in his vision, it was just another pile of rocks.
Silence. He hoped the old man had found shelter in the cave with his goats. It was only when he got closer that he saw the piece of broken loom with its scrap of blanket under a huge boulder and beside it, grey and ashy like all the other stones, a foot.
With revulsion and shyness, he reached down to brush the dust from it. The skin was death cold and swollen and mottled with dried blood. It reeked of death and rot. Muleki frantically shoved and yanked at the rocks around it, but they were wedged tighter than all his strength and guarded a putrid silence and certainty.
He sat beside the rockfall through the night, praying for the soul of the old man--added him to the long list of dead souls, his mother and sisters, the others of his village. He sang softly to himself of their many kindnesses rocking back and forth to sooth himself.
With the new day came the rains. Even though he brushed the ash from divets and dents in the rocks, the pools that collected in them were grey. The rain he swallowed as it fell from the sky left grit and ash on his tongue. He dug around the pile of scree in front of the cave's entrance all the long wet day making slow, one-armed progress. With the dimming sun, he finally heard a braying within the rock and with that fresh hope, the digging came easier. He moved rock after rock, until in the deep night, his strength gone, he curled in a ball and slept, pelted by the ashy rain.
The next day, he cleared a small passage at last and squeezed his way inside the cave. The air was urine sour and dank. Nervous hooves scraped in the blackness and panicked bleats bounced off the walls.
"It is Muleki. Smell me and know that I am your friend." Then, against the certain knowledge of the foot poking out from the boulder, he called loudly into the depths of the cave, "Hello! Hello!" Then softer and with great sadness, "It is Muleki come to return your boots." But there was only silence.
He remembered the lively rocks in his medicine bag and began to feel about for dry straw. Making a little fire with one arm proved most difficult. He held one of the rocks firmly with his bare feet and scraped the other against it until finally, after many tries, he breathed them into flame.
The wary eyes of the animals glowed in the fragile light, but he rejoiced at the sight of their living souls. He found the old man's stores--the cheese and yams and braids of onion, then ran to the little spring and drank from its clear clean water.
That night, Muleki sleep in the warmth of the goats and in the peace of their beating hearts. He told them softly about the death of the old man, then sang to them the songs of his mother to quiet the hurt and fright in their animal souls and his own.
The rains pounded on and on, but the second day, he woke with joy to find the little white goat sleeping beside him, wet and shivering and very thin.
"How get thee here little one? How find thee the way home?" He held her tight and buried his face in her wet hide. She nuzzled his hand then ate and drank without ceasing. As he watched her, gradually a promise rose into his mind and brought with it an ache weighted like a stone in his heart.
"We will make amends my little friend. My weakness for you has ruined the world. Somehow I must do what I could not do."
Standing on the ledge, he looked out on the sluice of ash and rain and promised the Great God, the lesser gods of this world, and all the ancestors--he would make things right. He would sacrifice the goat as a scrap of redemption for his weakness. As penance for what he'd done to the world. When at last he'd found the man he was sent to find, he would sacrifice the little goat. This time, he would not fail.
The rains poured down unrelenting, but all were warm and fed inside the cave, though the air was thick and dank with the smell of beasts and fouled straw. When he ventured outside onto the broken ledge, he saw that shy rivulets spilled down the rocks and far below was a plain of mud and ruin.
He tended to the goats and the little donkey, changing their straw from the stores in the cave and singing to them every song he knew. He sat long hours watching the never ending rain from the cave's mouth and praying to know what heaven would have him do, but the heavens were too busy with the great herd of dead and had no time for his small prayers--until the fifth night.
On the fifth night, he dreamt a land of clarity and beauty--lush and bountiful and fragrant. This dream sky was a dazzling blue and the air fresh. He walked a path through a garden with the little white goat sidled next to his leg. In a branch thick with plump tocatle berries, the crow with the twisted leg regarded him first with one eye and then the other. He awkwardly hopped on his one leg across the branch and stared at Muleki's dead arm, then raised his own crooked foot.
"Find him." the crow then said in his father's voice. He said this three times then flew away.
Muleki woke in the dank cave filled with a strange new hope. He spent the next sodden days gathering what stores were left and fitting the goats and donkey with packs and harnesses to carry them.
"Leave we this place." he said to the animals when the rains finally stopped. "Know I not where we go, but hide we no longer."
He filled all the skins he could find with fresh water and roped the animals together. He gathered his own things, his blanket and sash and medicine bag with the lively rocks inside along with the old man's skins. He tethered the donkey and the little white goat to his waist and they set out--pausing beside the bloated foot to cover it with the borrowed boots.
The way down the holy mountain was tangled and difficult. Chunks of rock had fallen to great depths and for all, Muleki and the animals, there was fear and balking at the narrow ledges and deep chasms. All the rocks he touched in passing felt bewildered and uncertain. Great shards of boulder and slicks of scree marred the way. Muleki loosed the surefooted little donkey to find a path down and they all carefully followed his steps.
From that high vantage, Muleki saw all trees below uprooted and bowing towards the east. As they descended, every ash and mud crusted dead thing bowed together towards the east, the place where the weak but blessed sun rose after so much darkness. It seemed a sign. They would travel east.
When they stumbled at last to level ground, it proved as difficult as the rock and scree on the mountain. The earth was thick as porridge with rain soaked ash and sucked at their feet. Muleki carried the little white goat on his neck to keep the muck from swallowing her and tethered the weak to the donkey to keep them from sinking in the mire. The air was wet and smelled of rot and any deep breath set him gagging.
Muleki howled and sang and called out as they walked in case any lived that might hear. His had always been a quiet people--voices cramped to whispers lest they be found by the flesheaters. Now he yowled loud and long to fill the deathly silence, but his voice rose and disappeared like the mists off the mud.
"In fogs like this, escaped my people." he told the goats. "Drunken were the flesheaters on wine and the blood of the women's husbands and sons. Put the women pixcha powders in the wine to bring deep sleep, then fled they into the wilderness. Sent the gods a deep fog to enfold them, to hide them--a fog deep as this. So deep, tied they themselves together lest any be lost. Led my grandmother the long line of women tied behind her though she saw not the way. Led was she by the whisperings of the gods in the mists."
He grew quiet then and listened but heard no holy whisperings, just the sucking of mud on their feet, just the little grunts and groans of the struggling animals.
"Never was there a more sure footed donkey!" he called out loud as he could. "Never lived there more stout hearted goats! Travel we to a land of flowers and grasses head high with clear streams. Sing a thousand birds in the rushes." He sang and coaxed them through the muck and come darkness, he wove a platform of dead branches for their rest. They perched on the fallen trees like storm worn birds.
When they finally found solid ground and the steaming mists thinned, Muleki offered prayers and sang praises to the animals hailing their courage. He let them forage on the dead tree bark as their stores and water were almost gone and there seemed no green thing left in the world--no other living creatures.
One night, the crow with the twisted foot flew into his dreams to rest on a fallen tree. "Find him." he said again then flew off into the east.
"Wait!" Muleki called aloud waking and angry. "What use is this to me? Where am I to go? For what? Who is this man and where is he? All the world is in ruin!" He pounded the dead log where he sat with his good fist and cried bitter tears in the dark where the animals and the gods might not see. He cried like a weak and coddled child until sleep finally found him again.
The donkey nudged his good arm to wake him when the sun glared overhead. All the goats had fled in the night save the little white one who sidled up next to the donkey. Muleki called and called. He listened for any faint ring from their bells, but they were gone.
He wept anew. They were his friends and saved by the gods from destruction, but now, like all else, were gone. A dark despair clung to all three travelers. Muleki tethered himself to the goat and donkey--not for their sakes, but for his--that he might not be completely abandoned in the great dead world.
They walked until dusk, then heard a wailing. Thinking it might be one of the lost goats, Muleki stopped and searched the gathering shadows and listened for the soft ring of a goat bell. But it was a human groan.