Tuesday, April 27, 2021

        When the sun rose again sickly and pale, its weak light shown on an earth blanketed with ash.  But a thin slice of blue striped the horizon and that blue was a magic, singing thing.  A deep pleasure like music to Muleki's eyes.  For a moment, he forgot his hopelessness and remorse and sang prayers of thanksgiving for the color blue.  As if in answer, a picture bloomed in his mind of the spring of clear water inside the old man's cave.  He saw the path to it, but no trace of the stone hut, just a slide of broken and jagged rocks piled where it once stood.  His thankful heart withered in his chest and the moldy guilt threatened once again to swallow him.  If he hurried, perhaps he could still find the old man.  Perhaps he was still alive.

        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.

        "Hello!  Hello!"

        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.


Monday, April 19, 2021

Chapter Four

        Muleki woke in darkness and fierce pain, but not silence.  The rocks around him creaked and groaned and scraped.  Thunder and lightning ripped the sky in every direction and a fierce wind blew grit in his mouth and eyes.  There was the wail of things rent and the hiss of waters dying.  About him dead souls spun in a cyclone panic, the moans of the dead rolling and bouncing off the earth's wail.  Rock heaved and crashed.  All about him spun a vast whirlpool of terror.

        And then suddenly there was stillness.  Silence.  Nothing--not even pain.

        When he woke again it was to a thick choke of blackness that set him gasping.  He felt awash in a slurry of death, his soul sloshing on the wreckage of the world.

        But his body ached everywhere, so he couldn't be dead.  His flesh felt the grit in its wounds, a searing pain ripped through his shoulder bones.  In the blackness, he moved his foot to see if it was able--if it could find some hold.  One arm wouldn't move.  He wriggled the fingers of the other and then with the good arm, checked himself for wounds.  There were many, sticky and warm, but none deep.  There was ash in his breath and a coat of wet grit on his skin.  Rocks pinned his other arm and when he yanked to free it, a screaming white pain crossed him into dream.

        It was there, in the land of dreaming, that the crow with the twisted leg sat atop a flowering branch against a blue sky.  It whispered with deep tenderness, "Find him."

        Muleki woke again in a blackness so thick and wet, he had to feel his eyes with his good hand to check that they were open.  The moans and agonies of all the dead eddied around him, the anguish of all the earth a whirlpool pulling at his soul.  His spirit strained to join.  A great groaning climbed from the pads of his feet, clawed up his spine, and filled his lungs to bursting.  He howled like a beast for all that was lost.  He howled to join the stampeding herd of the slain.

        His spirit shook free its tethers with a great yank and raced to join the moaning swirl.  Fear left him.  Pain left him.  He twisted and flowed with the dead like water.  He howled with them.  With them, he became the groaning wind spiraling up into the dark.

        Then a taut thread of silver light pierced the black.  The pure song of a single voice--the blessing song of his mother.  A fire burned in the shape of her hand on his chest and her song pulled his bucking, straining spirit back into its broken shell.

        Muleki woke again to the blackness with pain rending each breath.  Any movement sent a stinging like nettles through his skin.  Fear swallowed him and he yanked and twisted to be free, but he was pinned by his arm.  His mouth made the words of what prayer he could remember, but no sound came out.  He mouthed his pleas--his confession.  Because he was weak, because he could not appease the gods with sacrifice, all the world was now lost.  He was lost.

        There was no counting the days in a darkness so damp and heavy, but after much time, he groped to find the sash of his ancestors and the blanket of his people still rolled on his back.  He fumbled to find his mother's medicine bag around his neck and the moment he touched it, a picture rose clear in his mind.  His village, its reed huts torn in shreds and floating atop muddy waters, the bodies its women and girls bloating in silt.  And when he touched the lively rocks within the bag, he saw the beehive house of stone and the old man crushed beneath a rockslide.

        Grief and bitterness overcame him.  He had been cast out again--more completely this time than when he was cast out of his village or cast out of the play of his sisters and their friends.  And now, for his weakness, he was abandoned by all, to wallow alone in a land of terrors.

        Gradually, thirst became a demon raging, swallowing the pain and hungers of his body and even his fear and despair.  He smelled death around him in the dark, rising thick with rot and panic and chaos.  He felt the anguish in the rock itself --could feeling it pressing back against the weight of the black air.

        Only in sleep came peace.  In sleep came the song of his mother--a silver thread of light trailing in a streamlet of clear water.  In sleep, he climbed with strong arms into the trees and danced on strong legs.  In sleep, his sister's soft green sloth clung to his sash and the sky was a glistering blue.  And in sleep came the crow with the twisted foot, always with his father's tender voice, always with the same message.  "Find him."

        But each time he woke, it was to everlasting black.  In time, even his raging thirst grew weak.  He would perish soon and was glad.  Soon he would dissolve like a mud brick in rain and be just more darkness awash in the dark.

        And then, after so much tortured time, he startled awake to a strange ashy sky lit by a dim and sickly sun.  He jolted with joy and blinked his stinging eyes.  When he looked about, he jumped again--this time with an animal yelp.  He was pinned in a bed of boulders and old bones, in a tangle of tattered flags and scree.  All things everywhere coated with dust and ash.

        One of the big altar rocks, still showing its chisel and burn scars, pinned his left arm.  He slowly examined the rest of himself.  His flesh was purpled, scraped bloody and ashed, but he was still able to move.  Now he watched the weak sun trudge slow overhead and thirsted anew.

        A long leg bone, stout and bowed, wedged just at the grasp of his good hand.  He wrested it from its pile and felt instantly, in the touch, its anguish, its exhaustion, its longing for home.  He felt all the hard toil in it, the rancor, the humiliation and dropped it with horror.  But then he picked it up again.

        "Beg I thy pardon." he whispered in a voice shriveled and dry and choked with dust.  He rammed the bone under the altar rock and pried it to near breaking many times.  At last came a tiny looseness and he yanked the arm free just as the bone snapped in two pieces.  The freed arm dangled useless as a dead thing.  He tried moving its fingers.  Nothing.  It swung at his side with a sear ache in his shoulder, but he was free at last.  His weak and wobbly legs stung with a thousand needles when he stood and balanced with care on the loose rubble and scree.

        The borrowed water skin was snagged by its strap on the horn of a boulder nearby and with relief, he climbed to it on limp legs.  The water inside tasted stale and sour and gritty and he drank it all in one savage draught, then tore into the ashy bread tied in a bundle to it.  Like a wild beast, he ate the gritty cheese.  The blackness returned when the sun sunk below the mountains, but there was a shard of hope now.  He was free and the darkness was only night.


Monday, April 12, 2021

         He woke with the acid taste of trouble and discord still lingering in his spirit though a joyful blue shone through the roof holes.  The old man groaned.  The goats brayed.

        "Hush!" the old man yelled and hefted away the stones weighting the hide door and peeped outside.  "Ah boy, this will be yer travelin day.  Clear as spring water!  Best hurry though--never know when the next big one will blow in.  Go while the weather's fair."

        "Go where?" said Muleki shaking off sleep.

        "Well ye come all this way fer the Holy Mountain didn't ye?  Well ye aren't there yet.  Top's a day's journey up an that's where the altar is."


        The old man packed cooled yams in a pouch with bread and cheese and threw wool and hide foot covers in a pile at the boy's feet.  "You'll return these," he said, "or I'll track ye down and skin ye to make new ones.  These here are my only boots."  Then he wrapped more skins and hides around the boy's arms and legs.

        "Wear I not the flesh of the dead."

        "Ye have no choice lest ye be dead yerself fool!  Yer high minded ways won't keep ye warm up the mountain--but these here might."

        He tied a bladder of water about Muleki's waist and strapped the food and his father's knife to his back, then tied on a head cover of hide.  He took a blacken stick from the fire's pit and drew the way on the stone floor.

        "Ye must go behind the face a the mount--you'll see it plain.  The ancient path is marked by a staff and skull.  In old times, pink priests brought slaves to cut the stair up the mountain's shoulder and build the altar there.  When they finished, those old devils sacrificed every slave on the very altar they'd built and tossed the burnt bones over a cliff.  You'll know that place when ye pass it fer sure.  Ye can feel it.  I seen that hill a bones myself in years when the snow melts there.  Blackened bones piled up tall as three men.  But I've not climbed past the place--every time I think to, them bones give me the jitters and turn me round."

        "How know you of the altar then?"

        "Everybody knows about the altar."

        "What do I when I get there?"

        "Why're ye askin me?  You're the one came sayin yer to go up the Holy Mountain!  I figured ye came to keep the world from ending!  How am I supposed to know what yer supposed to do!"  He collapsed in a heap of foul temper into a nest of blankets.  "Ye come all this way and don't know why or what to do!"

        Muleki shrank inside himself.  Shamed, he whispered, "Come I because I was called."

        "Well perhaps ye should've asked fer a bit more detail!"

        Muleki felt the black mold of doubt coil up his leg like a serpent.  He felt the weight of all the death he wore strapped to his body.  The weight of his village.  His spirit sank deep inside the hides.

        "Well," said the old man at last with a peevish sigh, "like I said--I never ventured up, but I suspect the altar's still there from old times--a place fer sacrifice.  Maybe that's what's needed.  What's expected.  Wait here."

        From inside the cave, his mutters and curses bounced off the black walls.  He returned leading a new weaned goat of pure white on a tether--a tiny thing with delicate little hooves that clicked on the stone floor.  A burden of sticks was strapped to her back.  When the old man gave the goat an affectionate pat, his hand lingered on her haunch.  He went to a basket in the corner and brought out a silver bell looped onto a woven cord of blue and gently tied it around her neck as she licked his old fingers.

        "Here.  Take her." he said looking away.

        "What for?"

        "What for?  Fer the sacrifice ye foolish boy!  Not sure about her bein a firstborn, but she's the best a the lot."

        "And what do I do with her?"

        At this, the old man snorted in a fit of temper.  "Sacrifice boy!  Ye slit her neck with that er knife then burn her on the altar!  Say a prayer or somethin then git back here quick with my boots!"

        "Muleki's hand dropped the tether in horror.  "I'll not shed blood!  My people vowed they'd shed no more blood.  They buried their weapons in the earth!  My father died for that vow!"

        "Then how'd ye come by that fancy knife?"

        "My mother dug it up just before the women escaped to the jungle--because my father's hand once held it."

        The old man muttered and kicked at some blankets.

        "Well ye best take her up there with ye--yer gods sent ye up here fer somethin.  Who knows what the gods want!  Fer such demanding folks, you'd think they might be a bit more forthcoming!"  He picked up the tether and shoved it back into Muleki's hand.

        "Look fer that rock stair and go to the top then to the altar.  Be quick lest the weather catch ye--then I'll have to come find ye and strip this coat and boots off yer dead bones.  Go now!"

        "Wilt thou bless me?"

        "I'm no holy man."  His eyes darted away when Muleki glanced at the crow feathers he wore.

        Muleki took the old man's gnarled hands in his and placed them on his head, then sang softly the words of his mother's prayer.  When he finished, the old man was quiet and could not meet his eye.

        He called to the boy as he began to walk away and tucked the lively rocks into Muleki's medicine pouch.  "Fer the sacrifice."  he said.  "Go now."

        Muleki stamped through ice and snow marveling at its cold and squinting at its shine.  The vast world spread wide and blue and storm scrubbed all around him--bigger than he'd ever dared imagine.  The little goat followed him nibbling at the few specks of green poking through the snows.  The winds were so quiet, her tinkling bell was the only sound.  He waited for her.  She waited for him when he stopped to eat a yam.

        The sky was slow to dark come night, and in the last lights, he saw a pole with a ragged cloth topped by a broken human skull.  He felt an evil like thick swamp air suck at his spirit.  Such was the might of this evil, he prayed for the help of the gods.  For the help of the ancestors.  For courage.  He prayed for the souls of the dead slaves and backed quickly away.

        He found a sheltered place for the night, and though it was bitter cold, he made no fire, saving the sticks for the altar.  Instead, he wrapped the goat next to him and they burrowed inside the hide coat and his people's blanket.  He felt her shiver and the beat of her little heart as she nuzzled against his chest.  He sang mother's sleeping song, but with its sweet melody came a throbbing ache for her and his sisters.  A longing for their tangle of legs and arms in their sleeping pile was worse than the ache from the cold.  Worse than the ache of fear and uncertainty.  Worse than the evil of the dead slaves' bones.

        Muleki rose at first light numb and tired and stiff with cold.  He stumbled on the slick stone steps and strained against the darkness in them.  The little goat did not stumble and he wondered if she didn't feel their evil in her sure hooves as she climbed ahead and waited on her tether.

        The steps rose higher and higher and even in the thin air, he felt a great heaviness weigh on him.  The pull of evil and the darkness of the stone stairs, the wind moaning up from the pile of bones far below.  About this place was an anguish too thick to breathe.  He rested.  He prayed for strength and that the darkness might not overcome him, then continued his climb dragging the consuming sadness along with him.  He finally saw more poles waving their tattered cloths marking the very top of the peak.

        The altar was built of great stacked stones, some broken and cracked, some fallen away.  Muleki looked at the little goat and her burden of sticks--so small and white and fragile next to the massive rocks of the altar.  He looked at the sun's place in the sky and was suddenly even more tired than he'd been climbing the stairs.  He looked out at the plains, the far away jungles and the place of the jaguar, the whole vast broad earth.

        "Am I not obedient?" he called out to any spirits about.  "Know I not of killing any flesh.  Have I not been taught since a child that the killing of flesh is an evil, unholy thing?  What god asks this thing of me?"  He collapsed in a heap at the foot of the altar and immediately the little goat nestled at his side.

        "We are the weakest of all the weak of the earth." he said as he stroked her soft head.  "The least important.  Know I nothing of the ways of men or gods.  Know I not what to do--what is expected."  The moldy doubt rose through him, its sodden cold greeting him now as a familiar.

        The goat nuzzled and licked his fingers with her warm pink tongue.  He looked into her eyes.  They were the same color as his mother's, had the same softness.  "Wait we for a sign." he sighed.

        The sun moved in the sky and gilded the mountainside. Its golds swept across the west sides of the hills and trailed on the waters of the river far below.  It warmed the stone where he sat, the goat curled in his lap.   There was the feel of the knife in his hand and the feel of the knife's willingness for its work.  He stroked the slender white neck to feel for a place, then quietly, slowly, brought the big knife to the neck's quick pulse.  In his head, he could see the move required.  See the clean spill of steaming blood.  In his head, he could see the warm and quivering gore.  He gripped the knife with firmness.

        His heart balked.  His heart would not obey, though the white throat stretched still and willing beneath the knife.  He flung the knife away and heard its mocking clang against the stone, then wet the goat's neck with tears.  He cried like a child with great chokes and sobs and with a shame that seemed to swallow him whole, exposed on the mountaintop to every spirit and ancestor.  To the ghost of his father.  He hid his head beneath his blanket and cried.

        When he finally wiped his eyes and stuck his head out into the cold, it was night and the stars sang in the clean, clear dark like brass bells.  The ratty banners hung limp on their altar poles--no wind, no sound.  A stillness like a great, drawn breath.  That's when it came.

        It shrieked from behind the mountain and over his head with a wail like a thousand hawks.

        A fireball shot across the sky, a small sun lighting the night to midday and trailing white flame.  It flew over the whole plain and beyond the river and into jungles, then burst in a plume of fire and a great cloud of smoke that rose like a monstrous tree.  After long moments, a boom of thunder ripped the sky and knocked Muleki flat.

        Below, the land rippled like water--the wave of it rolling toward him heaving all the earth below.  The skin of the whole earth buckled like a shaken cloth.  The very air surged in a visible wave like heat.  It all rolled with a sickening roar up through the valleys bringing the river with it, rising in a great wash up the side of the Holy Mountain.

        The rock beneath him rumbled and seized, jostling and shattering and tumbling the huge altar stones.  The steps where he sat slipped and slid and he felt himself swallowed by the mountain--its bellow the bawling of a monster.  He washed down the mountain's gullet in a pelt of heavy stones and a spray of gravel and dirt--drowned in pain and noise and then a consuming blackness.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

        When Muleki woke, the man was gone but chunks of bread and cheese rested on a flat stone by his arm.  Strong sun slanted down through the ring of holes in the roof.  Midday.  He heard the animals restless in their cave.  His stomach was restless too.  Hunger poked at him but the food had not been offered, only left, and so while he waited, he turned the straw of the beds and smoothed and folded the blankets, then went to the dark mouth of the cave and sat to feel the goodness of the beasts there.  He felt their kindliness towards this old man.  They cared for him.  They watched over him.

        After much time, the old man crawled through the hide door pushing large baskets before him filled with sticks and leaves, grass and straw.  His little donkey came after him bearing a great burden  of grass tied in bundles.

        "All this fer the storm comin." he said.  Muleki looked up at the clear blue sky shining through the roof holes.  "Oh its comin--just wait!  Ye surely won't be doin whatever yer plannin anytime soon.  Looks to be a wild one."

        Muleki crawled out the little hide door and was knocked to his back by the wind.  The cold clawed at any bare skin.  On the far west horizon gathered deep purple clouds, their bellies churning and angry and dark.  He ducked quickly back into the safety of the stone house.

        The old man pointed his gnarled finger at the bread.  "Go on--eat ye!"  Then he dug under the spent fire with a stick and poked around until he found his want.  He speared many blackened yams, pulled them forth steaming, then put new yams in their place, covering them gingerly with hot sooty earth.

        "Ye make the fire this time." he said.  "I want to see ye know it."

        Muleki did everything just as he was shown, but the lively rocks were dead in his hands.

        "Like this."  And the old man took his hands in his and scraped the baby fires.  In the touch of the crooked fingers, Muleki felt the warrior of his dream.  He could feel the liveliness in the stone draw up into the calloused palms like kindly bees.  The flesh of the hands was tough like the flesh of a heel.  They trembled.  Still, there was something mighty in them--something powerful that filled Muleki's own weak places.  The strength in them, the courage, seeped into him like water into parched earth.

        "There." the old man said when the fire started.  "Now breathe it bigger."  Muleki breathed into it until it began to eat the twigs and big sticks.

        "I think ye got er boy."

        The heat of the yam bit the boy's tongue and the tang of the goats' milk was soft and strange in his mouth.  He felt the warmth of the food travel down his throat and blossom as comfort in his stomach.

        "Thou art a warrior."  Muleki said when they finished.

        The old man snorted like a donkey with a fly in its nose.  The winds howled around the walls and whistled through the holes in the roof.  The animals, nervous in their dark cave, shuffled and scraped their hooves.  Thunder sounded afar, then rolled closer.

        "Aye," said the old man finally, "a warrior once, long ago.  This battle leads to the next and to the next.   There's just no end to the blood.  No end.  Took myself to the wilderness to be done with it."  He was not in the mood for talk, turned his head away, and soon dosed with a sputtering snore.

        Muleki finally slept too, but fitfully.  When the wind shrieked through the roof holes, he dreamt of jaguar screams or the howls of flesheaters, or the wailing of women.  He startled awake at the crash of thunder that shook every rock in the little house.  Rigid with fear, he watched the jagged lightning splinter the dark.  The old man just snored peacefully through it all.

        Muleki woke when the little donkey found the salt of his skin with his long wet tongue and left a sticky trail on his neck.  The old man stood atop a ladder and squinted through a roof hole.  The wind ruffed his wisps of white hair.

        "Come boy." he said when he turned and saw Muleki awake.

        The old man carried fire with him into the cave on a stick of pitch.  Goats were everywhere piled in straw beds and he and the boy heaped bundles of fresh grass before them.

        In the dancing lights of the pitch fire were old runes scribed on the cave walls--the spiral, the hand, the feathered man, the serpent king.  To Muleki's mind came the smell of soft mud and his mother cutting the runes in it with a stick.  Of his sisters' sticks trailing hers to practice.  A hard knot rose up unexpected in him and snagged in his throat.

        "Come boy."

        He followed the torch light deeper into the cave to a place of old fires--walls blacked with ancient smoke and stinking sour.  Deeper still to a place of water music.  A little stream glittered back the torch light as it crept through rocks and fell finally into a large pool.  The old man filled his skins and went back to the goats to replenish basins scraped into the cave's floor.

        While the storm howled through the day and into the night, the old man wove on his small loom.  Muleki made another fire for him to show his skill and cooked yams as he was shown.

        When the wind tired and the silence in the house grew too heavy, Muleki asked the question itching at him.  "Why come you alone to this place to live so far away from your people?"

        "Ha!" snorted the old man.  "Got tired of people--my own and every other!  The pink men think they're the only ones that know anything and they're two faced and sneaky besides.  We're no better.  It's always rage and blood between us and them.  We're both weaned on savagery and vengeance."  He picked a wad of red wool and twisted its loose threads tight then worked it into a row of black.  "Saw too much of it all.  Came to prefer the company of goats."

        Muleki felt the sidestep in the words.  "Hide you here." he said flatly and a cloud passed across the old face.  

        The old man grew silent then and still.  He turned a look on the boy that burrowed like a barbed quill.  "And," he said, "I saw what is to come--and it was you who showed it."


        "You come to me in a dream, only you were no boy.  Like I said before, you came as an old sage, but you had those crow feathers about yer arm and that wee bag about yer neck.  Was you showed me the end of the world."

        Muleki shivered inside and out.  He looked into the fire for a long silent time.  Finally, he said, "What saw you in this dream?"

        The old man looked at him with the same barbed eye.

        "Saw the earth laid waste--by fire, by earthquake, by mighty winds, by flood."

        "And why hide you up here alone!  Warned you not your people?"

        "You told me to warn em and I did.  Them and the pink men too!  Went to the pink men and they stoned me--they won't hear a brown man.  Went to my own people and they mocked me.  My woman left me for scorn and took my children with her.  My own sons mocked me.  They mocked me for a crazy man and cast me out.  Said I was beset by demons.  Some called me the devil himself."  The old man went back to his weaving in a weighted silence.

        A wave of anguish and confusion overwhelmed Muleki.  Was this the man he'd been sent to find so that he could warn his people?  He paced about the stone house wondering what must be done.  What was expected of him by the gods?  How was he to save his village?  The old man was no help.  He tended his weaving in grudging silence.

        The wind rose and howled like a stricken beast.  Thunder shook the walls and floor.  Muleki jumped each time lightning split the dark.

        "Is this it then--the destruction?"

        "Ha!" laughed the old man.  "This here?  This is just a squall boy.  This is nothing."  Still, the animals deep inside the cave's mouth stamped and fretted and whined until the old man sang to them--a low song that seemed to quiet all.  It quieted Muleki's troubled and tangled heart until he finally sat in the fire's orange glow and was swallowed by the song and the drumming of the rain and the wind's howl.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Chapter Three

        Muleki woke.  He thought he was in the land of the dead, but for aches in every part of him.  He looked up to see the glare of sun just past its crest in the blue sky beyond tree branches and flies circling.  He sat up fast and the hard white sleep punched him back down.

        He woke again in the purple shadows of twilight and fingered the searing pain on his chest.  The wounds there were sticky and cold, but in most parts, not too deep.  His legs wobbled and threatened to buckle when he stood.  All his body seemed to groan with the effort of gathering his things where they'd fallen.

        He dribbled the last of his water from its gourd over the open wound--four great slashes across his chest.  A swipe of claw.  Around him, in the gathering dark, were jaguar prints.  They circled the place where he fell first in one direction, then turned back to circle the other way.  Muleki counted five circles of prints before they trailed off into the brush.

        Maggots ate at his wounds while he climbed higher until all the poisons and dead flesh were gone, then he brushed them off.  He was hungry and thirsty, but glad to be rid of the maggots' itch.

        He wore the jaguar's mark.  Its silent shadow troubled his sleep in the trees by day and he felt its golden eye on him as he climbed by night.  His heart beat in the great slashes as he climbed higher and higher, as all the green world fell gradually away.  

        He climbed to where the trees were few and stunted--to where they clung to cracks and clefts to hide from frozen rain.  These old trees sang hymns so ancient, Muleki could feel their music deep within the hollows of his own bones.  They sang the whole story of the earth.

        Though the soles of his feet had toughened to this stony land, its cold bit hard into any flesh not covered by his blanket.  He climbed into the land of rocks and felt their deep knowing beneath his palms, whispering of time beneath oceans and time spent buried under earth.  Of fire.  Of ice.  They sang of mother mountains in the old language, the first language.  They spoke to the stars in a common tongue.

        One morning, Muleki came over a rise and saw the holy mountain--glorious and mighty as in his dream--like a great god in robes of frozen white.  The sight caught in his throat and he fell to the ground in relief and awe to pray his thanks.  The great heaviness of doubt lifted from his heart and left it light and sure.

        The mountain rose up before his path now and in two days more, he spotted the little stone house of his dream resting on a wide flat ledge and nestled tight into the cliff face behind it.  There was no great warrior weaving before it, no little white goat.  He came closer and finally crouched to wait in a strip of sun beside its door, but sleep and relief soon swallowed him.

        "You boy!  What's your business here?!"

        A man stood over him, but not the warrior of his dream--an aged man stooped and bent and leaning on a staff.  Like the dream though, his thin whited hair was woven with feathers and shells.  But this was no warrior, just bones and hide.  Still, he wore the blanket of Muleki's dream around his frail shoulders.

        With eyes sticky and yellow, he looked the boy over.  He smelled his hair.  He smelled the wounds on his chest.  Muleki smelled the old man for evil, for cunning--but there was only the smell of goat.

        "Called am I by dream to the holy mountain--and to thy house."

        "By dream say ye.  By hunger and foolishness more likely."

        The old man grumbled and opened the hide door to the stone house, then turned his milky eyes back on Muleki and paused.

        "Wait here whilst I think on ye." he said then crawled through the small opening.  The flap fell behind him.

        Muleki sat by the door shivering.  A goat wandered around from behind the house and sidled her heat next to him, then came another and another, piling around him.  He thanked them for their warmth and kindness, then, as the daylight faded, dosed off to sleep.

        "Ye smell goaty!" growled the old man.

        Muleki startled awake and crawled into the rock house when he was waved in.  The goats all followed him on their knees.  The whole house smelled goaty.  It was a dark place but for a small pit of fire in its center.  The house was built tight around the mouth of a huge cave and from its darkness came a chorus of merry bleating and tinkling bells that bounced around the piled stone walls of the hut.

        "Go on!  Get ye!"  The old man swatted the rump of the last goat that followed Muleki in and she jumped over the fire and the cave's darkness swallowed her.  Within the cave were rustles and shufflings and the scrape of hooves on the stony floor.  From somewhere afar back, a muley bray.

        "Oh hush ye!" yelled the man.  "Ere's food aplenty fer all yer gapey mouths!"

        Muleki's eyes grew slowly familiar with the dim.  He could make out nesty blankets about and piles of bunched twigs stacked neat, a blackened pot and mead stones.  Bloated skins hung from hooks about the walls and a basin scraped into the rock floor held water.

        But it was the fire that snagged his eye.  He'd never seen fire up close, only from without the circle when the crones prayed.  He'd never seen the way it danced and stretched and changed its colors.  How it threw those shivering colors against the rock walls with its heat.  He listened hard for the fire's voice, but its song was only a great inhaling.

        "Lucky ye found me boy--storm's blowin' up and ye got no clothes about ye!  What's the matter with ye travelin' naked?  Ye'll freeze like the fool ye are!"

        The old man sat with a hard thud on a nest of blankets.  His bones creaked.

        "Well--sit ye down then."  He took a parcel from inside his coat, unwrapped bean cake and broke it even.  "Here then.  Eat ye."

        He unwrapped another parcel of cheese and this he offered whole.  Muleki bowed his head to the stone floor in thanks, then made the prayers for food with his lips only--no sound.  He didn't know this man to trust him with the sound of his prayers.

        When the bread and cheese were gone, the old man looked at him hard and severe, then sighed.  "I seed ye by dream as well--but ye was no boy in the dream, but an old sage as in the dreams before--but wearing yer blanket this time."

        Muleki listened partly.  He watched the dancing fire shift and swallow its color and felt its warmth lick up his side.

        "Know I not fire." he said.  "Fire brings the flesheaters to kill our people."

        "Hmmph!" said the old man.  "Well ye must be a cold people then."

        The soft warmth stroked the flesh of Muleki's arms and legs and muddied his thoughts.  There was fullness in his belly and safety in the stone house.  In the soft blanket nest, he was swallowed by a sleep deep and dreamless.

        He woke to ribbons of pale light slanting hard through the holes ringing the top of the house.  He shivered and burrowed deeper into the nest of blankets.  The old man's mutters tangled inside the cave with bleating and braying and scuffling.

        "Fire's out cold boy!  Why'd ye not feet it?" he scolded when he came out of the cave.  He fussed and puttered about, poking under baskets and bundles.  At Muleki's puzzled look, he stopped.  "Do ye even know how to make fire boy?"


        The old man shook his shaggy head and muttered to himself.  He crouched down near the spent fire with creaks and groans and said at last, "Well, I best show ye lest ye freeze yerself to death.  Come over!"

        He scraped some straws from under a blanket into a neat mound and drew two flat rocks from a pouch around his neck.  "Ye must look fer these here.  Feel em.  Hold em in her hand sos you'll know em.  These special kind a rocks is what's needed."

        The rocks were light and thin and Muleki felt their life running spritely in them--but crosswise only.  He felt a bright hum in them.  When the old man scraped them together over his little mound, baby fires leapt into the straw.  He cupped his hands round it as it breathed out a frail smoke, then blew his own breath into it.  The little fire breathed back more smoke.

        "Not too much see.  Not too much.  Ye have to let her come to life on her own."  He breathed soft into the straw until the baby fires ate the straw and grew stronger.

        "Now see, ye have to feed her somethin bigger--some twigs or wee branches.  Then she grows and needs even bigger food.  Ye have to feed her timber then, logs and branches and roots--dead though--she'll not take the wet or the living lessen she's wild.  Ye understand?"

        Muleki nodded.  The smokes heavied his eyes and clouded his thoughts.  Its warmth stole his strength.

        The old man shook his shaggy head and muttered, but wrapped a blanket around Muleki as he slipped into the land of dreams.  In this land, the flesheaters stalked his sisters, they danced and howled around his village.  He woke with a panic and a start.  The fire glowed orange.  The old man slumped and snored, a crust of bread in his hand.