Monday, October 18, 2021

  They all prayed and fasted the next day, each soul its own private prayers, that Muleki’s new name might be revealed.  They ate no meals, but worked with diligence and patience at their chores, dedicating their labors to Amos’ pink God.  They bundled sheaves of cane and Muleki and Rafa balanced the roof beams to secure them with soaked roots and vines.  They sang as it was happy and blessed work because of their fast.

They prayed together in the shade at noonday and again in the evening when they broke the fast with hot porridge and bread and honey.  Come dark, they sat about the fire each lost in their own thoughts save the little girl Yula, who pet the white goat and tinkled the silver bell around its neck.

“No name has come,” said Amos as they found their beds, “and so we shall fast again tomorrow.”  And so, with more prayers and fasting, they went about their labors come sunrise—but not the old man.

Amos climbed to a far ridge and spent the day in solitude.  Before the family prayers in the evening, he returned peaceful and smiling.

“We shall anoint thee with a new name come nightfall.  After our meal boy, go wash and make ready.”

Muleki went to the new little spring in the split rock and scrubbed himself with its clean waters.  He took extra care with his ragged nails, then stood wet and naked in the moonlight and let a wind dry his skin and prickle it cold.

“I am Muleki no more,” he whispered to the Great God like a jaguar, “nevertheless, Muleki’s oaths shall always be my oaths.”  And to his mother and father and sisters and to all the lost of his village looking down with their starry eyes, to all the ancestors he said, “Know you my heart—a heart bound by blood and love to your hearts.  Say I to you that I am Muleki no longer, still, be I remembered by thee as the boy you knew and cared for.  Love and watch over this new boy that Muleki has become as loved and watched you over the other.  Forgive his sins of blood and savagery and hate.  Forgive his willfulness and his faithless fears.  Know that the boy Muleki’s great love of his people, the blood of his people, abides always in this new boy he has become.”

They were pretty words—still, he felt askew and unsettled, as though they were the borrowed words of another.  He took a chotle leaf as his mother had so many times, as he’d watched the crones do, and dragged it across his forehead as the prayer for pure intent.  He dragged it across his lips as the prayer for true speech and across his heart for devotion.  Across his palm for honest endeavor. 

He thought for a long while before dressing—holding the sash of his lost name.   He fingered the knotted threads, tight and even as beads—the work of his mother’s hands—stitched and twined with her hopes for him, with her prayers for him.  He touched the figures telling the story of his old life, the patterns grimed and frayed with the hardness of his journey.  He held it with reverence and melancholy, mourning the loss of the boy he’d been.  The loss of his innocence.  At the last moment, he tied the sash snug around his bare skin where it would not be noticed and give offense. then slipped the loose linen robe Mishna had given him over it and rose to go to the house.

He sat with Mishna and her siblings round the evening fire which warmed his cold skin and his cold and uneasy soul.  Amos prayed off to one side until he was ready, then he came to stand behind Muleki holding a small vial.  From it he poured five drops of oil into his palm, dabbed a finger into it, then stroked it onto the boy’s head.  In the touch, Muleki felt the old man's spirit like that of a goodly tree--the same strength and wisdom and patience.  The same bridge between earth and heaven.

“I Amos, son of Benjamin, anoint thy head with oil and give thee a new name and a blessing.  The name I give thee is Jeriah—meaning one led by God.  And the blessing I give thee is one of peace—that your burdens henceforth might be light upon your back, that your heart might be scoured of self reproach—made clean and ready for the direction of heaven.”

These sealed the old man with another anointing of oil and a chant in a language Muleki did not understand.  And it was done.  He was Jeriah—a dark skinned boy in a pink man’s house, wearing a pink man’s robe with a pink man’s name chosen by the pink man’s god.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

  That night they sat by the evening fire.  Mishna rocked her little sister in her lap singing the sad tune that Muleki remembered her singing to the burnt log and it cast a melancholy over the room.  Rafa worked at a small basket of split cane and the old man carded a tuft of alpaca hair with a thistle.  Amos paused to look up at Mishna’s ruined face with eyes full of pain and love both.  He chewed absently on a bit of chicla from the trees by the river.  He glanced over and caught Muleki watching him.

“I don’t remember your name boy—did you tell it to me?”

Muleki looked away from his wise and friendly eyes, his thoughts jumping with a start from peace to more complicated ones he hadn’t yet untangled.  He said nothing for awhile, but at last he gathered courage.

“Muleki,” he said. “But stands this name for the boy I am no longer.  Slay I an evil man on our journey here.  Desire I not to let his blood stain my mother's name for me.”

“Ah—my Mishna told me this story.  I am grateful beyond measure—please know this my boy--Muleki.”  The old man turned back to his work with the thistle, but the look on his face was far away.  Finally he set his work away with great deliberateness and turned to face Muleki.

“You feel guilt for this act that saved my daughter?”

“Vow my people before the gods to shed no blood, yet those same gods ask this thing of me.  Obey I the gods but betray I my people.”

The old man thought for a long while then said, “That is how the evil one can destroy the heart of a good man.  He uses a good man’s virtues against him.  To the wise, he sends arrogance.  To the just, indignation.  To the blessed, entitlement.  To the obedient, doggedness.  To the earnest, guilt.  All these a cataract on the righteous soul.  Sadly, the dark lord knows the true nature of our souls better than we do ourselves.  To your earnest heart, he has sent guilt.”  He leaned forward and placed his calloused hand on Muleki’s knee.

“It is not God’s will that you feel guilt over this my son.  In this thing, you were God’s instrument that he might answer my prayers.”

Muleki could not meet the man’s intent gaze and so he looked down at the hand resting on his knee.

“Find I a strange pleasure in the act,” he said in a choked whisper.

“Ah.”  And pain again washed over the old man’s face.  He shook his head and muttered to himself, “What is asked—what is asked of the young.  Too much.”

Muleki felt the gloom hang heavy in the room and wanted to ease it.

“Choose I another name, but not yet.  Wait I to know what that name should be—wait I on the gods for instruction.”

“And which gods do you ask?”

“All—the great god like a jaguar, the gods of the earth and all the ancestors.”

Old Amos nodded and closed his eyes.  He sat for a very long while thinking then said at last, “I will ask our god as well.  I will go to the Lord and ask and we shall fast and pray on the morrow,  If heaven will send it, I will anoint you with a new name.”

Humming, Amos resumed his carding and chewing.  Muleki felt the peace in this old pink man grow large enough to wash over all the room, to hold each soul in a kind of embrace.  A peace like the deep music in the evening sky.

Monday, October 4, 2021

The brothers name was Rafa and he was just younger than Muleki.  He was happy for a friend, eager for talk and always moving—running, jumping, kicking at rocks, climbing stumps.  His face was beautiful as Mishnas in Mulekis vision—skin gold and pink from sun, yellow hair curling about it like sunshine. 

        The two boys went to the great cane fields to gather stalks for thatch and new floor matts and baskets.  The work was hot and hard, but Muleki felt a joy it it.  It was so ordinary.  Rafa whistled and sang while he cut through the cane.  He told the names and habits of the birds they heard and of every animal he had ever seen by the river.  When the sun was high overhead, they paused to drink, then climbed up into the broad leaves of a taraxacum tree to eat its fruit and rest in the shadows until the sweet orange pulp made their stomachs bulge.

I was feeding the new lambs when it happened, said Rafa, and didnt see the great streak of light.   But I heard it!  Like a shrieking eagle—only so much louder!  Even before the shaking started, our llama kicked at his pen, hissing and spitting, and broke through and ran away—but he was always evil tempered.  Rafa licked the sweet stickiness from his fingers.

Then everything went silent.  No birdsong.  No bug noise.  No frog song.  Just everything still as death.  When all the shaking started, I ran to find Papa just as the wall of the stable collapsed and crushed our two sheep and the old sow.  Then the roof beam fell in on the house and one whole wall with it—Mama trapped beneath.  He turned sober then, looking far off into the distance.

We ran to free her even while the earth still shook, but the beam was too heavy with all those bricks and mud on top.  Everywhere walls swayed and crumbled, the thatch flying off in great whirlwinds.  Mama screamed and screamed and when she finally stopped, she just lay whimpering.  Rafa grew silent for a long while after that, sober and floating somewhere in his thoughts.  Finally his attention returned to Muleki.  Were there earthquakes where you were?

Yes—a mighty shaking.  Slide whole mountains into the low places.  Burns the fireball all things living and heaves up the whole earth.  No blade of grass, no tree, no bug.  All death and ash when it is done.

        And after that, the darkness too?

Yes, Muleki said, but didnt want to go further.  And your mother—dies she then?

Not right then, but later.  Rafa poked at his fruit with a knife, keeping his eyes firmly on it.  His voice grew slow and quiet.  We felt around in the darkness for tools to break up the wall and shoveled mud and sand with our hands until we could pry the beam loose, but it was too late.  When the sun finally returned, Mamas legs had already turned from green to black and were stinking and useless.  She died in a fever soon after.  And your family—what of them?

Press rocks on my arm high up on a mountainside to trap me far away from my village.  Muleki pointed to his useless arm.  Dead are they.  Grows the river wide as a lake with snowmelt and ash and all the dead.  In a great wave, spread the waters everywhere and swallow all the low lands.

In the warm shade, Muleki told Rafa of his journey—of the jaguar swipe, of the old warrior and the witch, the pink man with his golden words.  His soul lightened with the telling, with the relief, the comfort of unburdening himself to a boy his own age—to a friend.  As he listened to his own words, the journey took on the fantastical distance and shimmer of story, of adventure.  Still, he did not tell Rafa of the hairy man.  He could not tell him he was a manslayer.

They rested in the fluttering shade and in a weighted silence until finally Rafa forced a bright smile.  Come, he said and grabbed Mulekis dead arm to pull him up.  They gathered some of their cut cane and tied it in bundles then went down to a small stream where they placed them in a pool to soak while they dove and splashed and swam.  They chased small fish in the shallows and laughed and squealed with abandon.  Muleki suddenly remembered happiness.  In the cool splash and and spray, he was again the child who played in the river with his sisters.  He was just a boy.

The two played like river otters, then found a deep shade and slept through the remaining heat until late afternoon.  When the cool wind finally blew down from the mountains, they knotted three long branches together with vine and piled the wet cane bundles on this sled and dragged it dripping a trail behind them up to the house.

The little sister, Yula, chased chickens across the long evening shadows that stretched across the cleared yard.  Mishna sat with the two dogs in the shade of a large fuyo tree grinding its nuts to a fine meal.  There was such a wondrous ordinariness to it all.  A peace and goodness in the rhythm of the stone pounding its mortar and in the frenzy of the happy clucking chickens.  The blue sky darkening, but still glowing like the surface of a deep pool.


Thursday, September 30, 2021

  He left Mishna with the animals secured and hidden behind the bluff and crept towards the buildings amongst the rocks and shadows.  As he drew closer, he saw that the buildings below were made of clay bricks, their walls split and broken and tilted.  Against the two largest huts were hastily made lean-tos with new thatch.  A scatter of chickens pecked about in the dirt.  Two dogs rested in the shade and raised their heads to stare in his direction when they caught his scent.

Muleki froze until he thought they’d lost interest, but at his first move, the  dogs barked in alarm.  A stooped old man came out of the largest of the buildings to hush them, but the dogs ran agitated circles around him barking and nudging at his slow legs.

Muleki rose then from his hiding place and raised his good arm to the old man.  As he drew nearer, the dogs ran to him, their eyes wary.  With great force, he focused his good thoughts and intentions at them until they finally wagged their happy tails.  They sniffed at his hands.  They sniffed at his blanket.  When he finally reached the old man, he bowed in welcome and the old man bowed in return.

“I am Amos,” said the old man.

Muleki did not give his name.  He did not know the name of the boy who was Muleki now that he was that boy no longer—but a manslayer.  The name of his childhood seemed foreign and lost to him.

“Wander I for many days,” he said, “is there drink for a stranger here?”

The old man nodded and motioned him to follow.  They went to a place a short distance from the huts where clear cold water sprang from a new crack splitting a rock ledge.  This new water filled a pond freshly dug and carefully lined with smooth stones.  From there, it sluiced through new ditches dug into the red earth and lined with gravel that led to a garden just greening with small shoots.  The old man filled a gourd and handed it to him.  The water was cold and clear and tasted of the deep earth.

A girl peeked at him from behind a cracked doorway.  A boy nearly his size stared at him from a window.

“My family,” said Amos, “my son, my daughter.”

Muleki looked at the man’s face and saw that he was not truly old, just worn.  His blue eyes and the lines in his face held a deep sorrow, but his stubbled jaw seemed honorable and there was a wise look to his brow.  Muleki could feel his kindly heart.

“Travel animals with me and a woman.  Travel we many days with much hardship.  Beg I permission for them to drink also.”  The man looked hard at him to make out his intent and at last was satisfied.

“Bring them if you will,” he said, “and we shall make a place for you at our table and a bed for the night.”

Muleki bowed his thanks and returned back up to the bluff where Mishna waited breathless and anxious.  He took care as he painted in words the picture of the young girl, her brother, and the old man.  She could not contain her joy and jumped up on her burned feet to try and run towards the little huts, falling and scrambling, then crawling in her hurry and blindness, dragging her wounded feet behind her.

The dogs came running and barked and she called their names.  Then the man and his children came running.  The dogs jumped to greet Mishna, but her family stopped farther back, their faces startled and pained at the sight of her—at her ruined face and the divots and scars where her blue eyes once were.  At the tufts of wild hair.

There was a long moment of pained stillness, then the man walked to her and gathered her in his arms.  Then came the children and they clung to each other in a tight knot in the grass—the people and the jumping dogs.  They fell on each other’s necks weeping.

That night, for the first time in a very long time, Muleki slept in a place of safety.  The goats and steadfast donkey slept in clean straw within a sturdy little hut, safe from fang or claw or evil intent.  The heavy burden of always watching, protecting, being responsible, slowly lifted.

He listened to the peaceful breathing of those around him and drifted off to sleep, though of habit, he woke with a start at every sudden, unfamiliar noise—the creak of a shutter, the wind whispering through the thatch.  Each time forgetting where he was and reaching for his father’s knife.  Only then he remembered the man Amos’ face wet with tears, the delight of the little sister with the goats, the kindness in the handclasp of the brother so near his own age and yet looking so much more a boy.  And he remembered the warm cakes of maize and soft goat cheese, the little roasted purple potatoes, the mound of radishes made sweet with honey.  The friendly fire and hearth.

He gazed into the quiet dark, up into the cane thatch roof where the waning firelight played, and thought back on the terrors of his long journey.  He listened to the quiet snoring of the man and felt his own jaw muscle unclench, the knot in his stomach ease.  An unfamiliar peace settled in his bones.

When morning came, Amos looked up from his warm huauhtli porridge and asked if Muleki might stay awhile—to help repair his little farm from the damage of the earthquakes and whirlwinds.  To help shore up the leaning walls, make more clay bricks to plug the holes and cracks, and thatch the roofs against the rains.

“Make I a vow to the gods,” Muleki said, “to go where they lead without question.”

“And where do your gods tell you to go?”

Muleki looked about at the kindly family, at Mishna’s joyful face.  “Ask I them for direction,” he said.

He went to the peace of the hut where the happy animals munched on clean straw.  His good hand found the warm nose of the little white goat and the donkey nuzzled his side.  The calm goodness of their natures felt sweet and soft and there, amid the flecks of straw and dust floating golden in the morning light, he prayed.  He prayed until the sun was high overhead, but the gods were silent and then, since the day was so fine, he decided to pester them no more.

“Stay I until told by the heavens to depart.  Know I not when that may be,” he said to Amos when he went back to the house after the heat of the day.  Mishna heard and smiled and the little sister giggled with delight.

“You bless our home,” said Amos.  “You have returned to me my lost treasure—my Mishna.  For this, you are a son to be always.  Pray stay as long as you are able, but know also that you may leave when you must.”

Monday, September 20, 2021

 Chapter Eleven

They followed a narrow animal trail through the tight bramble until the sun was high then came at last to a stream of clear water and stopped to rest.  Muleki sat by this water with his eyes closed for a long while hoping somehow to hear its voice and feel its spirit in the raw uncomplicated ways of his early childhood.  But he felt only new and tangled things.  He felt his soul laid open like a wound with a scab hardening over it.  He felt his spirit tightening with the strange ways of men, felt a callous forming over it born of rubbing against new pollutions.

When at last he opened his eyes, he looked down at the spatter of dried blood on his hand and arm, the paint of it across his shin.  He waded into the chill of the stream and sat cross legged on the mossy rocks in its bed, the water coming neck high.  He sat still as a heron while the animals munched and browsed along the shore.  He sat so long, tiny silver fish came from their hiding places in drowned tree roots and poked and nibbled at the hairs on his legs.  He waited until his flesh was thoroughly numb, until the cold current finally washed the last flecks of blood and gore away.

He sat in the stream until at long last he finally felt its goodly nature—young, clean and swift—then ask it to guide them to the low lands, away from the mountain haunts of evil.

They followed the stream as it searched out its river, but with caution always.  On its sandy banks in places were the fresh tracks of men and beasts.  Come nightfall, he and Mishna rested well away from the water and hid in brambles.  They made no fires, but slept piled among the goats and donkey for warmth.   Muleki was ever wary and hushed the animals with sternness.  He felt danger in every rustling branch, in every sudden silence of the frogs and crickets.  When they spoke, it was only in whispers.

They followed the stream over rocky outcrops, gathering nuts and kindly berries in the brush as they traveled, until they came to a deep gorge with no pass.  He left Mishna encamped with the animals to scout a way forward and climbed a small peak for vantage.

The lush green land spread thick and unbroken to the horizon, the streams path marked by a frail mist trailing through great trees.  The sky above was veiled with pink and orange and his heart swelled at the sight of the first pale stars as they appeared.  

A fresh breeze licked his skin and he shuddered remembering the tight, cold black of the ancient ruins.  He remembered the desolation and dreary muds of his ruined homeland and was suddenly awash with thanksgiving.  His soul sang for the beauties of this new night, for the beauties of this new land.  For his deliverance.  He lay down on the rock to watch the stars bloom one by one in the golds and pinks of twilight.

Thank I the ancestors, thank I the Jaguar God for our escape, for our guidance and safe travels.  Thank I the heavens for beauties that bless my eye in this place, he said aloud to the oncoming night.

As the blues deepened, however, the familiar solemness settled onto his soul.  If he was no longer Muleki the boy, the innocent, who then was he to be?  He thought on this question for a long time sitting cross legged upon the peak, but formed no answer.  Finally, in the black of night, he found his way back to their little camp.  In the pile of goats beside Mishna, with ears pricked and his good hand on his fathers tainted knife, he pondered this thing.

They circled round the canyon the next day and followed the little creek as it joined other streamlets and trickles and its waters grew wider.  They saw fish resting in the current, their noses pointed into it—first tiny fish, no bigger than a finger, then larger.  As the stream widened and gathered strength, they saw great scarlet birds with curved black beaks and a multitude of smaller green birds perched in the broad leaf trees and filling them with trills and chatter.  They saw the lovely posture and plumes of patient herons in the reeds with their snaky necks arched and still.

In the broad mud flats of the bank were tracks of panther and deer and capybara, sometimes the swoosh in the mud that marked a cayman’s tail, but no sign of men.  Finally, after many cold and wary nights, they made a small fire and gathered the animals close.  Come morning, they rubbed its warm ash on their skin to ward off the hosts of biting bugs that also hung close to the water.

In the next days, the stream grew wide and strong until at last it joined a mighty river.  Mishna’s face quickened with joy at the smell and taste of the water, earthen with a taint of rot and a faint bitterness.  She knew this river.  Muleki described its path towards the dry hills on the horizon and she grew restless and eager.

“There is a place,” she said, “where the river bends hard around a great red cliff face.  There we break from it and travel north a short distance to my home country.  There is a little farm all alone in the shadow of a bluff far above the river.”

They found a trail nearby winding alongside the river in a tunnel of trees.  It showed no trace of footprints and was overgrown.  Vines dangled from the trees, and snakes also.  That night they made a ring of small fires in a tiny clearing and all slept piled within it.  

Muleki watched the deep night shadows, but saw only the lights of night bugs flicker and dart among the branches like green sparks.  The thrum and rasp and rattle of the night creatures along the riverbank veiled him with homesickness.  He remembered his childhood village, the wetness of the air, the sound of moving water as constant as his own breath and the ceaseless insect noise.  He thrilled at the familiar songs of river things—the songs of his childhood.  He listened to the bugs and frogs search each other out and remembered these as the lullabies of his lost life.

Mishna sensed the nearness of home and sang to the goats of the grassy hills there with delight.  When at last they came to the red cliff face she remembered, she grew overcome with joy as they turned north, away from the river.

“My father’s name is Amos.  My mother and brother and sister will be there—if they yet live.”

They climbed into foothills again towards a broad hot land covered with grass and tall cane, treeless save in the folds between hills where tiny creeks flowed.  They wound their way through the tall cane like swimmers—blind and silent—feeling their way with the rise of land beneath their feet, ever wary of snakes.  Wary too of the webbed holes of great hairy spiders large as a man’s hand.

Coming to a clearing, they stopped and Mishna listened, her head with its frayed tufts of yellow hair tilted to one side.  “Describe this place.  Describe what you see far off,” she said.

“A clearing in the cane—to the north, close, a high bluff with an outcrop of yellow rock.”

“Yes.  We’ll go to the bluff then.”  Her voice an anxious whisper.

As they climbed up towards the rock outcrop, the cane shrunk to grass and finally the grass gave way to scrub and thornbush.  The ground was dusty and the air dry.  

“What if my father is dead?  What if they’ve left and our farm is abandoned?  What if it is taken over by robbers?”

“Dry are the trees and grass, but upright—circle no great birds over carrion.”

“Yes, and the streams we pass smell clean.  The air smells clean—no scent of rot or death on the wind.”  Her anxious heart seemed eased for awhile.

Near nightfall, they came over a small hillock and in the distance clustered three small huts hugging a ridge of great jagged rock.  A pale string of smoke rose from its center.  Muleki painted this picture for Mishna and it set her weeping.

“Come is night and the place is still a far distance.  Rest we this night and prepare for the morrow,” and he helped her down from the donkey’s back.

He woke at first light to see Mishna sitting already, nervous and fidgeting.

“We must be careful,” she said, “we don’t know what’s happened since I left.  We don’t know if it’s even my family living there.  Or if my mother will even have me now that I’m burned and ruined.”  She said this last with a little choking sob.

“Travel we far and are almost at our journey’s end.  Fear not.  Go I first with stealth if you wish.  Find I the state of things.”

“Thank you,” she sighed heavily.  “And,” she said in barely a whisper, “should they not want me, I would not have them see me like this.  I would have them remember me as I was.  If they should not want me, just bring me word and we will go away.”

Monday, September 13, 2021

  Through the heat of the day, Muleki followed signs of scuffle and prodding in the dirt and brush.  With each clear print of hoof or foot rippled a fresh hope, with each sign in the dirt of struggle, a new wave of anguish and urgency.  Come twilight, he tunneled through brambles and into the deep forest stopping at every high ground to climb trees and sweep his eyes across the land for movement.  To sniff out any trickle of smoke or gauzy scent wafting off a cookfire.  He hushed the little goat and listened for the warning calls of birds and monkeys or a sudden silence in the hum of insect din. 

In the deep night, Muleki finally sniffed a faint smoke in the thin air and tied the goat to a bramble where she could hide, then slipped silent through the trees.

The other goats in the herd smelled him first and bleated softly, rustling their tethers.  He crawled through the low brush until he finally came to the edge of a small clearing.  In it, he saw the bones and remaining flesh of one of the goats staked across the glowing embers of a dying fire and next to these sprawled the hairy pink man, his snoring loud and thunderous and beset with grunts and moans.  

Along the far edge of the clearing, he made out the donkey and goats bound to brambles and his eyes scoured the other dark forms for Mishna.  He finally saw her sleeping in a tight wad and knotted to a large tree by her neck and wrists.  In the dim light of the dying fire, he saw her old wounds broken and bleeding anew and fresh and savage bruises and swellings about her face. 

Muleki’s heart raced at the sight.  He felt an unfamiliar surge of something raw.  Something animal and ferocious rose within him.  Fury.

A part of him balked at this new feeling, the part of himself he knew.  That part revolted at this raging hunger for vengeance.  The careful words of his mother, the teachings of the crones in his village, stuck to the raw need in his muscles and hands for violence like burrs.  Violence is sin.  Sin is never justified.  Faith, they had said, requires us to leave the ends in the hands of the gods.  A wrong cannot be justified by worthy ends.  It was why their men chose their deaths in the pit of fire.

In silent anguish, Muleki begged direction of heaven.  His vow, so very recent in the dark ruins was still fresh in his heart—a vow to obey without question--so what did the gods want him to do?  Hidden in the thicket he waited with difficult patience and dread, ears pricked and focussed on every sputtering snort and wheeze of the sleeping man.

Then came a vision.  A picture flashed to his mind pure, yet fleet.  The jaguar in the tree, the witch dangling by her bloodied neck from its jaws.  The crow with the crooked leg flew down and landed on the jaguar's head and perched there, then turned a penetrating eye directly on Muleki.  The crow spoke, as always, in his father's voice.  "It is given to you to do this thing," it said.

He sank into the brambles to ponder this picture.  In the flesh and bone of his very hand, he felt this strange new desire to hurt.  He felt it like a raw and primal hunger, something to be tamed or smothered or snuffed out.  To be overcome.  It violated the vow of his father and those others who knelt before their enemies baring their necks to the sword rather than shed blood.  Who suffered their women and children to take on a life of peril and hiding—and loneliness.  That vow had shaped all that he knew.

Muleki rocked back and forth wondering why the great god of gods required this of him now, or if he was mistaken and it was only the evil in his own nature that hungered for it.  Why couldn’t heaven just help him gather Mishna and the animals and slip away in silence?  Why would the gods ask this of him when he was a mere boy with no weapon, no skill or knowledge of killing so mighty a man--when he had already proven unable to kill even a little goat?

He prayed for more understanding, for clarity.  If he did this thing, he feared the withdrawal of his people’s blessing, especially the blessing of his mother.  How could he shed their protection against whatever darkness stalked him?  Bloodstained, he would be lost to them—a lost soul among the hosts of men, belonging to no people in heaven or on earth.  Muleki crouched in the brambles wrestling his thoughts and prayers, his heart a tangle.

Then came another vision.  This time the crow with the crooked leg perched on his father's knife.  The knife was streaked with blood.  "It is given to you to do this thing," it said again.  Muleki breathed a great sigh of sadness.

“So be it,” his heart whispered to the heavens.  He crept with fear and dread to the edge of the clearing and found there, as if waiting for his hand, a stone large enough for his purpose.

The huge man slept in a ratty and reeking heap, wineskins littered about him empty and smelling fruity and rotten.  In the weak orange light of the dying fire, Muleki looked again at the bleeding wounds where tight cords cut Mishna’s burnt and scarred flesh.  At this sight, that new jagged rage rose again into his mouth tasting of bile.  Its surge quelled his faltering.  It hardened his muscles with resolve.

The animals muttered and shuffled in greeting and he hushed them with his mind while creeping quiet as a cat to where the great man was lumped.  He paused for courage with the stone raised above the big pink head, but then saw his father’s knife where it had been tossed carelessly in the dirt.  It was streaked with the blood of the goat whose torn carcass stretched splayed over the fire.  At this violation, the rage rose in him again.  The knife called to him.  It yearned for his hand with a strength that sliced toward him deliberate and sharp.

With perfect quietness, Muleki set the stone aside and moved slow and steady to place his hand on the knife.  At the touch of his palm on the handle, a shudder of power surged through his arm and into his lungs—a thing animal and exhilarating.  A power that seemed to fill every empty, lonely and fearful place inside him.  He felt his own strength, his own skill, but something more.  He felt his father's strength--the warrior his father had been--seize his muscle and guide his hand.  For the very first time in all his short life, Muleki felt powerful.  Sure.

He crouched for a moment beside the pink man still as stone and breathed in the stale hot stench of the him while he focused his mind on each of the jagged reeking breaths.  He waited with tense patience until the rhythm of the snores evened, then, ever so slowly, raised the knife high above the throat.

Again came the surge of power from within the knife.   He paused a moment for steadiness—for a cold, hard calm—then drove the point into the fleshy neck.

A whoosh of hot air and blood sprayed onto his hand and face.  The hairy man’s eyes sprung wide open and he grabbed for the boy, but Muleki jumped just beyond the big grasping hands and instinctively drove the knife again into his neck hard enough to find bone, and then again—this time hard enough to find earth beneath.

The pink man pawed wildly at the air, his head dangling from mere sinew with hot blood spitting onto the earth.  Muleki crawled back to the cover of the brambles and watched the flailing and writhing body, the shudders and twitches of death.  When at last the man collapsed into a heap of gore, Muleki's stomach suddenly clenched and heaved wave after wave of bile into his mouth.  His limbs shook uncontrollably.  He curled into a ball and wept.  At last, the shaking stopped and he crawled back to sit before the dead man.  He watched the hot blood bubble and soak into the dirt.

“Become I a manslayer.”  The thought rested like a great stone in his gut.  The pink man's blood, made black by the moon’s silvered light, slicked the blade of his father’s knife still tight in his good hand.  The man’s blood cooled on his skin where it had spattered his arm.  He could see a frail steam rising like a spirit from where it soaked the earth.

“I am the boy Muleki no longer,” he thought, “I am a manslayer.”

He sat staring at the bloodied earth until the first lights of day puddled among the shadows, until the first birdsong found his ear, until Mishna waking wept tearless from her ruined eyes across the clearing.

“Slay I your captor—weep not,” he said to her gently and cut her tethers with the bloodstained knife.  She wept all the more and threw her bruised arms around him, buried her ratty head in his neck.  He felt again the magic of her touch—but just barely.  Not like it was when he was Muleki, the boy—innocent.  Rather he felt the lost beauty in her like a soft and fragrant breeze, like the good green smell of Spring rains coming.  He held the weeping woman with his good arm, though it was blood spattered and unholy, somehow strange to him, like the savage arm of another.

“Come,” he said when her tears were spent, “leave we this cursed place and find the way to your father’s lands.”  He tied what stores were left to the goats and placed Mishna upon the donkey.  He found the blanket of his people tossed in a pile among the animals and carefully brushed it clean.  When he gathered it around his shoulders, there was a new solemnity in it.  He gird himself with the sash of his name, though it seemed the name of a stranger.

When all was ready, he went back to the white goat and brought her to join her friends.  He kissed the nose of the donkey.  He kissed the nose of the little goat, then said aloud to the heavens, “I was the boy Muleki who shed blood for thee and these.  Direct us now to this woman’s lands that she might find safety in her father’s house and that I might continue my journey and keep my vows.”

He listened with a still heart and quiet mind for a long time while the anxious animals pawed at the ground and strained at their ropes.  At last, he felt a strange silence bloom amongst the trees and then heard a crow call from the distant south.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

         The sound echoed from far down some dark passage.  Muleki groped towards it and heard it again from a gap where rock walls of the room joined.  He felt for the place, then forced himself into the narrow space and squeezed toward the sound.  The damp stone pressed his flesh front and back.  His forehead and back scraped against it and the tightness made his body go rigid with panic.  He broke into a hard sweat.  His muscles froze.  The wedged weight of all that hewn stone pressing against him, the darkness that filled his flattened lungs, seemed to drown him.  He whimpered like an animal in a trap.

        Then he heard it--but not the goat's bell this time.  Rather a sound that trickled softly like a spring of pure water--his mother's voice singing.  It was an old song of rivers.  A song of praise that riffled like a current over stones.  He heard her words soft at first, like rain on a leaf, then like a streamlet seeping through earth and meandering around obstacles, finding tiny cracks and hollows.  Muleki felt his cramped limbs grow supple with her music, pliant and liquid.  His chest relaxed.  His breath steadied.  His shoulder bones collapsed and eased.  Muscles rigid and tense with fright went soft.  He felt his hard fear melt and he wriggled through the passage, slinking like water, farther into the tight black.

        He latched onto his mother's liquid voice and let it pull him where it would, wedging and squeezing between damp and reeking walls.  The song came in gentle waves that seeped through cracks in the rocks, but also dissolved the weighty fear in the darkness, dissolving it like sunlight disperses shadow.  Dissolving it like water will dissolve, over time, even stone.  He followed the song.

        The narrow slit broke at last into a vast cavern and he collapsed into a slime of guano and stench.  He rejoiced.  He was relieved to be free of press of stone and evil and darkness, but he rejoiced for the knowledge that he, in the terrible depths of this ruin, was seen by his mother.  He rejoiced for the nearness of her.  The material strength of her love, the evidence of her mercy.  Her pardon.  He rejoiced that the power of her love could search to such depths to find him so far from the land of the holy--trapped in the stony mire--a hell manmade.

        He knelt right there in the reeking guano, things skittering and crunching under his knees, and vowed to heaven a strict faith.  He thanked the ancestors and every god he could imagine for their forgiveness.  He thanked the Great God like a jaguar for his notice.

       Then he heard the goat's bell again, a little clearer and closer this time and he followed its lovely sound through more narrow channels. He was pulled through chamber after chamber, the tinkling of the bell seeming to move before him, until finally he felt the lick of the goat's warm tongue on his arm.  She nuzzled his joyful hand and he embraced her with the hungry happiness of a redeemed hope, rejoicing in the smell of her, in the softness of her little wet nose.

        As he stroked her, he smelled a trickle of fresh morning air--a clean and crisp ripple through the heavy, choking stink--and felt his way to its source groping.  He worked his good hand along stone walls welted with carved figures but slick with slime and slithering with centipedes and the feathery webs of spiders.  At last, he reached a tumble of loose stones and toppled a small rock away near the top.  In swept a draft of air sweet with the breath of kasish flowers.

        Frantic, he moved more and more stones until thin beams of sunlight striped the black.  He sucked in the fresh air and then rolled more small rocks away--enough to make a hole just large enough to squeeze first the little goat through and then himself.  He fell from the ruin into tufts of damp grass and briars and lay there gulping the fresh air and squinting into a sky impossibly bright and blue.

        The boy and goat rolled in the green to clean themselves of stench and spiderweb and guano and evil, then Muleki just sprawled in the joyous smell of it while the goat nibbled.  He squinted up at the colors of the trees and sky.  He breathed the wondrous smell of the living world and prayed again with deep thanksgiving, then took the bell from the goat's thin neck and blessed it, then stuffed the clapper tight with moss and mud and placed it inside his medicine pouch.

        "Come," he said to the goat, "go we to save our friends."