The point is not to let go. Slipping will strip skin and tendons from fingers and toes – and kill me. I descend, shuddering grip by shuddering grip. Brushing between leaves wider and longer than me, my mind is empty apart from denying pain and exhaustion … and hanging on to this vine, the lifeline which reaches safety – still a fatal drop below. But what a drop! A moment’s relief from struggle and a sudden death. The joy: the sheer bliss.
Don’t even look: looking takes energy. All you’ll see are bloodstains on the vine. I grip with the only important parts of me now, the space between my big toes and the next, the space between my palms and fingers. Try to find life in a muscle, anywhere in my body, and beg the strength to go to my hands and feet. Tremble, whimper, sob. Everyone else does at this point.
Don’t look down. You’ll imagine the ground – an illusion too easy to believe in. You try to put a foot down and your limbs lose synch and everything goes wrong.
Is that the ground? Is it? Is that what my foot touched … moss and stone? I’ve lost concentration, rhythm. It’s all gone…
My head, shoulders and hips smack against knuckles of stone. A beautiful pain. I’m down … I’m alive.
My eyes half open as my head hits; I don’t have the energy to close them, to move any part of me or even wail and moan with relief like some of the others I’ve watched.
Hands lift me; people murmur. I’m carried and laid on a leaf. My clothes and weapons lie beside it. Someone scratches the leaf to release the sharp scents which will carry me away. The ball of one bare foot after another is gently touched on my left hand as people offer their respect. Hands and feet: the sacred parts of a villager’s body. Even the tiny feet of newborns are pressed against my blood-crusted skin.
I’ve done it! Now I can whimper four days of agony away without embarrassment and despair.
Legend has it that some have stepped off a final vine and walked without collapsing, but no one was expecting anything like that of me. There will be food but the village has all the time in the world to cook, or even hunt it, before I can eat. I won’t be getting over the torment of a shattered body for a while … maybe days.
My mind is drifting away now: away. The chemicals released from the leaf-cuts, either side of my body, are taking effect. Someone drips water and oil into my mouth; someone else rubs my muscles. They know how much that hurts, but how vital for recovery. Swallowing is so hard.
A fire is lit and a leaf angled over it to reflect heat on me. I must feel cold to other people. Cold in a hot place. I’m close to death, but isn’t that the point? … to drive your body far beyond its limits and exist as pure will?
It’s lovely to have capable hands touching me. Someone strokes my eyelids closed. Silence, no one speaks in case they distract me from what happens next.
It’s never a dream. It’s more real than life.
Behind my closed eyes a man approaches through blurred shadows of almost vertical crags, trees, vines … all different to those I know. He must be from long ago or far away. He’s wearing triangles of silver fur, and laughing, happy, flying on a leaf as if surfing through the air. I don’t understand his words. Language must have changed over the ages separating us. I can tell from his expressions, the way he mimics my descending the vine and flopping on the ground, he’s making fun of me – that is an honour. I laugh through my pain. He’s clowning around, making fun of himself too. Relaxed. So happy. Handsome! Jerking his shield as he slaps a broad chest he roars, “Issi!” Raising a spear, its shaft intertwined cables of crystal so beautifully crafted, he repeats his name. The shaft and blade play with the shadows and darkness, focussing, bending, sparking black fire.
I say, “Issi … I’ve heard of you. Issi … really? Meet me one day!” The image fades and physical weight presses my chest. “Meet me…”
Dawn, though of which day I don’t know. These are the moments when you slightly open your eyes and let the low sunlight sparkle shards of brilliant hues through the early mist trapped in eyelashes. If you’re quick enough and in the right place you can see the sun shining through the next island, a small island too low for its translucent summit to reach the world of ice and storms so far above.
My eyes open a fraction, I notice something else distorts and plays with the sunbeams. The thing or things resting on me. What!? My head bangs off the hardness of a spear shaft as I ignore screaming muscles and try to sit up. My shield slips from my side. I go to grab it but my arm is too slow. Someone else stops it sliding down the slope.
I flop back into moss and the imprint I’ve made while sleeping. Warm water runs through it and around me on its way to the village, the shore and mudflats.
There is only one person here now, younger than me, dressed in eel-skin armour, scales brilliant in the light. She won’t speak until I stand and hold the weapon I’ve been given … by Issi!
Issi, Orri, Orrissian – the legend. The spirit who seems to be able to break all the rules of death and return to help fight villagers’ fights. Why did I receive my gift from him? He’ll have taken my weapon in exchange but though I’ve learned to make a crystal shield, even basic spears are a lot harder. I haven’t begun to understand all I need to know. I’ve only made a blade, a simple one at that. I was pleased with the result but it’s still hardening and has no shaft yet. Ah … he’s from so long ago that sufficient years lie between us for it to harden – albeit backwards in time … maybe … I’m confused.
I stand, silent, swaying, and trying not to speak, though I am probably allowed groan – and do anyway. Lifting the diamond-shaped shield and pushing my arm lengthwise through the straps, I realise they’ll need to be tightened. Even after years of training, culminating in fours days of merciless exercise, I just do not have the muscles of these people – and my forearms seem to have shrunk since I climbed.
Sunshine gleams through the spear. Now I see why it played with shadow – it’s been taken high into the ice and storms: it’s lightning-struck! I’ll leave my practice spear here, what’s left of it. Wood as hard as iron, they still only last a few days. Over the years I’ve grown good at making them. I won’t hack, scrape and polish another. I think we’re too short of time for me to train any more.
But, the spear… Why waste such an exquisite creation on a person who will be sacrificed soon? I’m barely good enough to join the warriors in the coming emergency. To become an effective fighter would take me many more years training and a far deeper understanding of spirits good and evil. I’ll be dead before the sun has set two … three more times?
Maybe it’s because I’ve offered myself and this gift is how the spirits thank me. I bite a lip and try to suppress tears and chokes, though not with any great success. My armour of coarse scales – I am still hopeless at construction and won’t waste finer materials – lies in the moss ready for me to wear. With spear and shield held as if for combat, I look down at the kneeling woman who tended me all night. I’m wearing nothing: there’s pride in that. I come from a place of formal modesty. But here warriors return naked from the heights to a public reception. Now it’s my turn! Adore me, desire me … great warrior-woman that I am! Amid all the pain there’s room for a little snigger.
I’m ready for the word. The word will be my name, the name carved into the mud effigy of me that will stand with the hundreds upon hundreds of other silent reminders of those who sacrificed themselves over thousands of years. The name I will take into the places of the dead.
She looks up at me. We make eye contact. Her lips move. “Senlat.”
Now I am complete and looking forward to smoked and roasted eel at the beach. The nameless girl helps me on with my armour. Nameless, but I know her intimately. I have a name now! though not for use in this world. No one here has names while living. They’ve lived with each other all their lives and don’t need them. To say something to one is to say it to them all; to call an individual is to call everyone. There are no secrets here, no guarding anyone – even the youngest – from any truth however intimate or upsetting. Tell someone something, do something, laugh, cry, make love – everyone will know about it soon enough.
There are sixty-three villagers. Some children, the rest adults and still young enough to be effective warriors. There are no elderly people to offer themselves for sacrifice this time. That leaves me – the incomer, the foreigner, not as precious as a child and not good enough a fighter for another warrior to offer themselves, to suffocate slowly, to flutter in the half world between this and the next, and to perish.
I’ve been here nearly one thousand blissful days. These are the only days I’ve truly lived. Descending towards the beach I half splash, half slide through the steep moss, water glittering in arcs before my feet.
Arms and legs jerking, a boy leaps up the slope. His eyes darting this way and that as he searches for purchase on jutting crystal or digging his fingers deep into squelching stringy moss. His words crush and tumble through smiles. He tells me his friends are fed and groaning on the beach, with fat stomachs – oil dripped all over their chins and chests, the girl with the curly braids kissed him and another boy and a girl in a wild game, there’s a man from my people waiting for me at the temple, the spirit of Issi came last night and took my knife from the cave of soft crystal, and he’s… So many words all so fast and crowded. He has a fine small eel strapped to his back. I wonder who caught that? It’s the way things are here that as soon as a villager catches or makes something good they give it away. The best and most beautiful things they own are all presents.
He asks what the ice was like, would some fall soon? Is there any danger?
I say no, there were no hollows, no ice-bound lakes and no cornices. We are safe for a while. That’s all I need to say. The whole village will know in minutes, shouted joy and songs echoing from the headlands.
I stop a moment and reach up with Issi’s spear. The blade shaves a curling sliver from a loose leaf. A blade so sharp… I will need to make a strong cover to avoid hurting myself or others.
Almost as if he reads my thoughts, the boy pulls the eel from his back and hands it to me. It’s so heavy! My arms can’t take the weight of oil yet. The boy laughs and straps it to my back before bounding down, splashing, shouting and jumping.
In the only flat spot above the beach, the temple is a giant shell, forty double paces across, supported on a chaotic wall of piled crystals glued with blue mud – airtight apart from the seven narrow arches. The seals stand beside them, rarely needed but ready in an emergency. A few days ago the villagers began to feel uneasy – received the auspices – and I made my offer. Now this temple is my home to live and die in.
In the very centre, on the ground, sits a man surrounded by his baggage. A wiry but ageing missionary. He looks tired and defeated. Anger and resentment radiate from him. He’s one of my people, the people I left to come here and study … only to be utterly seduced and absorbed into the village and its culture.
I know him. He travelled with me here, though he went on to villages far beyond. He’s a poor specimen of the world from which I came. A man who thinks in rigid lines – lines always dictated by others. No original thought. He lives in a cage of barred doctrines and when someone challenges or shows them to be weak, he simply makes the bars stronger. The problem with these missionaries is they want everyone to be like that. The problems with their doctrines is they believe them to be perfect. If the gods themselves came and pointed out anything different the missionaries would tell them they’re wrong.
“Doctor Arlagh, where have you been? I’ve waited three days for you.” He stands, shedding a thick notebook and quill. “You shouldn’t still be here. I’m going to take you back. Get ready. We need to leave now.”
He’s still wearing the clothes from our culture. They almost hang in rags. The sharp mud of these villages at the edge of the world cuts through everything. His gloves and boots have been patched with scraps of eel skin and tree bark secured by vines. Grotesque and amateurish. Wherever he was, no one felt the need to help him mend them. It wouldn’t be hard even for a child to have made something more appropriate and robust – though it would have been strange for villagers to make boots. Despite the constant abrasion, hands and feet are almost always naked here. Palms and soles grow hard and almost impenetrable as they collect minute crystals, and reflect like mirrors. Maybe he refused help to mend his clothes; that’s possible too. Actually, knowing villagers, it’s almost definitely the case.
I say, “My name is not … I don’t have a name you can use now. Be on your way. I will stay here.”
He looks at my weapons and armour, lips pressed together, shaking his head. A greater weight seems to burden his shoulders. “Get ready. You are leaving.”
“If you are so immersed in these people and their culture you will already know. News travels faster than light in the sunrise.”
“I want to know in your words.” Of course I know already. Actually, I also know what he will say – it’s so predictable. The doctrines will tell him how to answer me. The question goes into an ear, enters a doctrine, is analysed there and comes out of his mouth. He won’t be part of that process. What I want to know is how the event affected him.
He looks away, jerking his head, upper lip in a snarl. “I couldn’t … they wouldn’t listen to sense. We need to … my report,” he gestures to his threadbare bags, “makes it clear that a more radical means of education is required.” He sighs. “Trading doesn’t seem to work either.”
I turn. “Come with me. I need to eat before I start shaking and collapse.” I look back and beckon him. “To the beach. We can eat what is already cooked and prepare this eel for those who are not hungry yet.”
He smiles. “That’s what I love here most. The food, oh, and the light. I’ve never seen such colours and light. Lead on.”
We leave the temple and wade through foliage. Voices, children’s laughter, cries of surprise, joy, shock and the sharp cracks of combat training thrill the air. Someone is singing alone. That’s unusual. Maybe the presence of the missionary has affected people. “Tell me what happened.”
“They can’t understand the concept of a higher god. They only think of good and evil spirits. They just…” He speaks clearly, with none of the grunts and pauses of someone unused to clambering in this severe terrain.
I interrupt, “Not that. What happened? Was it you?”
“What these people lack is…”
“Please, your evasion and blaming are not what I need to hear. What did you do?”
“I couldn’t let them kill the child.”
I sigh. “And so everyone died.”
“Epilepsy, mass epilepsy all brought on by the use of hallucinogens. They died, yes.”
I step onto the beach. Ahead the sun has risen above the next island leaving a dark penumbra and grey shadow over the mudflats. I’ll miss the next tide, the elaborate preparation for feasting, music and dance to celebrate, the hiss of water as it creeps forward day by day. Then the waves and the mad surfing on leaves! Not that my hands and feet could cope now. It took nearly eighty days of work before the villagers said my skin was tough enough for the climb. If I were to stay alive I’m pretty sure I’d be leaving little blood smears, on anything I touched, for ages. The mudflats gleam blue-green. At this time of the year a new tide begins to change them to a deeper blue, later, indigo and red. I say, “And the one you saved died too?”
“Oxygen starvation. Epilepsy at the end. He had probably breathed the fumes from the leaf.”
“Of course he did,” I hiss. “He had to!” We stroll along the crystal sand. The villagers don’t seem to mind him being here but that’s because he’s with me and probably told them he’s not going to stay. Communal singing begins again now they can see him and what he’s doing. I stop and watch silhouetted figures performing cartwheels, jumps and somersaults on the same area of coarse sand I used to prepare for the journey to the ice.
A huge wave of peace, self-esteem and tranquillity washes through me. I passed the warrior tests … and I climbed … I have self-esteem! I suppose I always had it but after the climb I feel able to let it flow into the grace of my movements. A warrior and child point to me and laugh – they must have seen it in the way I’m walking. I laugh too, everyone in sight laughs … except the missionary.
I forget his name … funny that. Approaching a fire surrounded by lithe warriors and clambering or dozing children, I sit and take a blade out to prepare the eel. I will save the skin. Even if I don’t have time to make a blade guard from it, it will be useful to someone. Food roasts on a stick and I pull some away, cupping my hand to catch smoking oil. I’ve never caught an eel. That really would have been the next lesson here but I haven’t had a close enough relationship with the spirits until … Issi. Wow!
Warriors and children stand, stroke and look in wonder at my spear now I’ve jammed the butt in the sand. It is an awesome weapon. Not the blade, they are all the same, but the shaft: braided crystal in sunlight. Sunlight unable to penetrate the delicate threads of absolute blackness where lightning ran through it. The missionary sits beside me and people rise. That’s the way it is here. Anything upsets you, makes you angry, scared or confused – walk away. Always walk away. You must not let these feelings grow in you, never give them the chance. That makes evil spirits and there are always more than enough. That bit of you will only cause your descendants grief – and those people not born yet are the most precious thing in villagers’ hearts.
That is the spectre haunting the village now. The dread. It’s fears of how few will be left after the fighting, whether you will fail your village or family – ultimately yourself. I will avoid all that. There’s no chance of me failing … unless this missionary, with the best of intentions, destroys another village. I need to get rid of him. That is my battle; I see it now. This is the way I could fail too. Now that we are out of earshot of the departing people, I say, “You unsealed the temple.” The anger in me infects the way I pull flesh from the spit. I can’t help it and any villager seeing it will be upset.
“I had to; you know that. It was a child!”
“Eat, leave. I will help you fix your boots. You can only do damage here.”
“I will not leave without you and certainly not without your research.”
The oil soothes the cuts on my palms. “I am no longer an anthropologist. I am a villager. You will leave. You must. You will cause more death. The fight is coming, very soon, maybe today, maybe in a couple of days. You must be gone by then. You will receive my research in actions alone – the act of my refusing to return to a directionless and ignorant society.”
“Your studies here, though no doubt polluted by your embracing the ideas of these primitives, are vital if we are to help them.”
Closing my eyes and using my village training to let anger and frustration out in a deep exhalation, I calm myself and turn to him. “Go. You have no idea of the problems you cause.” I thrust a hand over his mouth. “Have you noticed the lack of old people here? They’re all dead: sacrifices. Attacks have intensified since we came. I’m doing my level best to stop me being a cause. You cannot help yourself. If you don’t actively kill these people you will do it by attracting or causing evil spirits.”
He’s doing a superb job of controlling his reactions. Gods, there is so much strength in him. Tears moisten my eyes. He says, “If only they would accept the one god they would be protected from all that nonsense…” He pauses, his head moving closer to mine. “You do still know this is all nonsense … superstition? It’s a primitive culture fed by fictional beliefs about mystical beings.”
“More or less. However, I see no problem in that.” He doesn’t say anything. I knew that would trip up his tongue. “You’ve defined all religions and belief systems in one go – including those of atheists.”
His face twists with contempt. “And the hallucinations, the drugs which cause epilepsy and death? Not to mention the belief that the air is filled with evil spirits who bring misfortune!”
“Forget them. Just forget all that. Beliefs are not the point – they are pointing. This is about reality. These people are happy. They treat each other with the greatest respect, love each other, protect, feed, share – all the things your god commands and your culture ignores. The villages don’t need your god. They are doing exactly what he wants without him. You have him and are so immersed in conflicting doctrines and moral judgements you end up excluding, lying, hating and amassing wealth and status – stealing and dominating. Take your god and go!” I stand up. “I am upset. You are full of evil spirits and they pass into me and grow. We are making people uneasy at a critical time and will weaken their resolve. I’ll take you back to the temple, get you ready and, if necessary, kick you all the way to the trade route. Well, I would, but I can’t leave the village. I am the next sacrifice and…” I take his chin in my hand and stare into his eyes, “you will never find a way to stop me.” I turn away, lifting the spear and attempting to keep my body language calm – though I’ll never fool a villager who isn’t seriously short-sighted. I make my way up the slope.
He isn’t as agile as me, even though I am still weak as a newborn. I’ve time to reach the temple and sit with my back to the wall and drink in sunlight.
He arrives much later and stands looking down at me. I’m mystified. His whole body language is changing. I wish I could get into his head. He says, “These spears … they do such beautiful crafts in this margin. They could trade.”
“Trade for what? They have everything they need.” I move the unguarded blade away from his hand. “Only touch the shaft. The edges are sharp enough to cut spirits. You’d see your fingers dropping off and wonder why.” He’s standing there burning with the heat of confusion.
Looking south he says, “The trade route is so far away.”
I shake my head. “Go on then, ask the question. But do you really need to? The answer lies in the depths of your scriptures, hidden away under piles of exhausting distraction, rules and nonsense.”
He blinked at that, went to speak but stopped. Turning to the edge of the slope he stares at the horizon for a while. Breezes whip his short hair into a frenzy only to lay it flat and do it all again.
I close my eyes, letting light glow through the lids, and pretend I’m a warrior fighting – a thing that will never come to pass. The gasp when inhaling the first acrid scent of the cut, the haze, the feeling of flying standing on a leaf, the way your internal demons fight to weaken you – tangle up your mind with doubt and hesitation – while evil spirits attempt to corrupt and destroy your body with vile weapons. The stab and slash, the crash of spears and shields, the delicate footwork as calves and thighs strain to control your flight…
All I trained for.
The missionary coughs. I open my eyes. He hugs himself. “You seem so sure of yourself.”
“Of myself? No one is sure of themselves. I’m sure of the village and the way it works. That is all.” Watching his face I see we are both different now. When we travelled here he was so full of certainty; I was the confused and rudderless one.
“What … what if I hadn’t unsealed the temple?”
That wasn’t the question I was expecting. He must know what the villagers believe; why ask me? I gasp. Did he really ignore them so much? I say, “The child would have guided them in the struggle. If they’d won the fight, few would have died. They don’t die of an epileptic fit; it just looks like one. It’s what happens when evil spirits defeat your will and turn on your body. The sacrifice would have died – they have to.”
He looks away. “Really? You really believe in all that?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. Frankly it all seems as mad as any other belief system but it works for them. Listen to that. It works: it’s good.”
“I can’t understand where your certainty comes from. Would you really die for these people and their beliefs?”
“Of course. Why can’t you see that? Come on, it’s plastered all over your scriptures. It’s you who seems scared of death – as if you don’t really believe what you preach.”
He tenses. “Do you think I … killed … a … whole … village? Are these superstitions more than fantasy?” He seems to shrink, as if crushed by the horror fracturing his voice and turning it to a whisper.
“Killed them? Possibly, I don’t know. Fantasy? I have this very weird suspicion that reality works with beliefs that work: a paradox. Maybe in some way I’m mad too.”
“Are you a warrior?”
What? Why’s he asking that? “Yes, I meet, marginally, the lowest required skill and resolve levels. A beginner, I…” Then a thought hits me. I leap to my feet and wish I’d done it more slowly: everything hurts. “Did you touch this spear?”
“I didn’t know I shouldn’t. I’m sorry.”
“No, no … not that. Touch the shaft again!”
He reaches out. I ask, “You can feel it?”
“Of course.” He looks at me, frowning.
I can’t say anything: stunned. I need to understand this. The spear came through the spirit world. He felt it because he didn’t know that and so didn’t believe it an illusion. Would he see and feel it if he did? I am so confused!
Leaning against the temple wall, his hands clasped, staring at the sky, he flicks the triangular tear in a glove. “Yes, these people are kinder, more peaceful … that is the most important thing you’ve said.” He goes to push his hands into pockets but the fabric is too worn and ripped. Those pockets failed long ago. After some time leaning back, eyes closed, his whole body relaxes. A sigh escapes him. A sound as soft as distant surf. “What do you have me do now?”
“Go. Go quickly.”
He looks down at his hands, bowing his head. “No, you misunderstand. I asked the wrong question. I’ll try again; weigh my words … please!” He pauses as if to be sure he has my full attention. “What do I need to do now … to keep these people just as they are?”
Something huge shifts inside my mind; it’s hard to breathe. He radiates something stunning. I think even he is awed by it. I struggle for words, “You … really? I can’t … believe … really?”
I love this man! This is as good as receiving Issi’s spear. “You?”
“Keep it simple for me.”
I kneel and hug him. “Simple is what it is. Even very young children have done it. Wait here or within earshot. Eat, drink, do whatever you like. When the time comes you’ll be told. Then you stay in the temple. I, or someone with better skill, will cut the leaf you’ll lie on and we’ll seal you in. Someone else will have lit a fire to consume oxygen.”
“Yes but neither of us are naive enough to think death is a problem. You’ll die slowly, not sure if you are living or beyond recovery – be in between two worlds. We, the warriors, will be on the beach … lying on cut leaves … and our spirits will fly on them and fight. The children will give us water and tend babies. You’ll guide us as you die. We can’t see clearly in the spirit world: you will. You’ll be the one who shows us where evil is massing, where they’re strong, how they are trying to trick us. You’ll guide warriors to assist any of us being overwhelmed. Nothing can touch you because you are between life and death, not in either, and it’s only the living and spirits who can hurt each other. There’s so much more but that’s the essence.” I touch his face, stroke a cheek. My hand is so sore as I do it but that can only make a bit of good spirit ready for the battle. “You have to die. You can’t be between worlds unless you’re actually moving to another. I doubt if it’s pleasant. You … you don’t have to do it.”
“I’m not throwing away my life over something…?” he tails off.
“Just do what the core of your religion tells you to – the essence before intelligent people mucked it up and missed the blindingly obvious.” Eyes, closed, I breathe out, letting the anger go… “Sorry. That came out wrong.”
“I’ll be able to protect you?”
“Everyone. But don’t go trying too hard to keep me alive. The best I can hope for is to distract an evil spirit attacking a skilled warrior. You can be sure I’ll be splattered pretty quickly.”
I pause, there is no alarm yet; we have time to talk. I sit next to him and take his hand. “No, don’t look out for me. I’ll be fighting myself more than anything. Even though I’ll die from the blow of an evil spirit, my battle is to defeat the demons inside me until that happens: that is all. Your job is to ensure as many villagers survive as possible – there will always be more fights for them.”
I snigger, remembering the vision of Issi. “No …don’t try to keep me alive. The man … spirit … who made this spear died long ago but he has a wild smile and ridiculous sense of fun. After I die I may just find a way to spend some time with him.”
©Gary Bonn, 2017
This is a precursor to the book Harsh Reality – coming soon