The world turns cold and gray and pointless. Time is a meaningless river.
Body feels distant as if the spirit that animated it grew small and all but vanished in its caverns and streams.
Footsteps close by. Bond around wrists is no more. Ground rushes up but something intercepts the fall. Being lifted off the ground, swaying motion, carried. Eyes look but no one watches through them.
Body has become meat.
More meaningless river. Spirit climbs out of the cavern, makes a passing glance. Body feels empty, drained. Had it eaten? Had it slept? Don’t know. And don’t care.
Care for nothing.
Occasionally, a strange noise, like whispers on a wind. The spirit makes the climb, looks vaguely for it but it is gone before source can be found. It does not matter anyway. To be, to exist, is a wasteland, empty of thoughts and desires. Pointless.
Fades into nothingness.
The spirit wanders a barren landscape. Withered gray trees and dried putrid rivers mar the vision. The land seems familiar, something once called home.
It’s not home anymore. Life no longer possible here.
Land rumbles and quakes. A chasm opens up in the ground, yawns beneath him. Terror roars. Grabs the edge of the chasm and holds with the strength didn’t know existed. No use. Grip begins to slip, slides deeper into the chasm, away from the sky.
He woke with a howl. Around him, the darkness of a hut.
“Can you hear me?” a voice said.
“I’m not deaf,” he said. Face felt swollen and the air refused to go through the nose. Voice sounded muffled.
“You didn’t respond until now.” Grower held up a clay cup. “Water.”
He was parched, he knew that. He drank but there was no pleasure, no relief as water trickled down the throat. Didn’t care about being thirsty or hungry. All he wanted was to not be anymore.
“You went against the edict knowingly,” Grower said. “You knew there would be chastisement when you got back.”
Chastisement? The word sickened him. “You call this chastisement?” He raised his left hand, his throwing hand. Pain shot through. He quickly lowered it.
“He does it to keep us a tribe,” Grower said, his voice small. “So that we can go on.”
“Flat Face is insane,” Niomir said. “What else do you call a man who punishes a hunter for making meat for the tribe?”
“He wasn’t punishing you.” The words were preposterous. He thought laughter would be appropriate but forgot how it’s done. “If this is his way of rewarding good work…”
“It wasn’t punishment for you,” Grower said. “It was punishment for your brother.”
Paused. “For what?”
“For putting a spear in your hand. No Runt may carry weapons. Your brother went against that.”
“I forced him.”
“I know that,” Grower said. “Flat Flace knows that. But willingly or not, your brother acted against the edict. This is why Flat Face forced him into hurting you. By making him do this, he severed the last bond you two had between you. You will never trust your brother again after this.”
Niomir stared. He turned away when a bowl of soup of herbs and grass seeds came closer.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“You haven’t eaten anything in days. You need to eat if you want to keep going.”
“I don’t want to keep going.”
Grower did not reply. After a while, he left him be.
Niomir stared into his left hand. It was wrapped in thick bandages but he could clearly see the thumb of his throwing hand was gone.
It’s all in the thumb. That’s what I tried to teach him about throwing. He robbed me of the chance of ever throwing a spear again.
“You must eat.” Grower’s voice was kind but there was urgency in it.
He didn’t care. Food was a pointless thing.
“One finger does not mean your entire life is forfeit,” Norgilam said. “Spring will soon be here. Life will return to the Woodland. You will feel better when the birds return and water flows once again. But you have to survive until then.”
Another mouthful of the dribble neared his mouth, seeking entrance. Niomir turned away in revulsion.
The world keeps spinning as if nothing is changed. The spirits tell me this is the natural state. If this is considered natural, I want no part of it. Not this valley, not this world, not this life.
“We all need to adapt in order to survive,” Grower was saying. “You are no different than any of us, even if you’d like to be.”
Something stirred in Niomir’s mind. “But I am different than you,” he said quietly. “All of you. Everyone in this tribe is afraid.”
“Of Flat Face?”
“No. All of you are afraid, including Flat Face.” Niomir felt his mind quicken with these words. The naked truth revealed itself before him. “At first I thought he was afraid of other tribes coming and taking our food. But they wouldn’t want to eat the seeds any more than our own tribesmen would. Flat Face knows this but he still refuses to see that which is in front of him. And you…” Niomir’s gaze flicked at Grower. “It’s easier for you to put yourself under Flat Face’s rod and endure punishment than to imagine a different way of living. You fear change and an unknown future more than you fear the lash. That’s why you discarded your own elder status and joined the Runts. I had always wondered why the spirits proscribe to be two elders in charge of a tribe. Now I know why: to keep one another in check. You were the only one with the authority to resist him. Instead of confronting him, you submitted to his will and gave him unopposed authority. Unchecked, his paranoia grew and polluted the entire tribe.”
Silence went on unopposed. Grower gazed into the distance, the bowl of runny soup in his hands forgotten.
“Our nature has always been about duality,” Niomir said. “We are offspring of a handful of spirits who left the sky and draped themselves into flesh that forms all creatures. We are the only beings in existence that have both Sky-kin and Flesh-kin. Now, fear has turned us into gnats we squash beneath our feet. That is what Flat Face’s vision has turned us into. He’d taken the Sky out of us.”
“I think you’re right,” Grower murmured after what seemed an eternity. “Whatever celestial essence we had in us is long gone. We are creatures of the flesh now, nothing more. And that is precisely why we need to adapt to the new situation, become something else than we were yesterday. Or we will be undone.”
Niomir turned away. Grower was afraid. Afraid to do anything but listen to Flat Face’s dogma of fear.
He’d dreamed of roasted meat. The smell of it saturated his awareness. It seemed the smell alone would be enough to fill his stomach. His insides roiled violently. The smell grew so potent it wrenched him into consciousness. The familiar twilight of the hut surrounded him, the moldy mats and the clammy air.
He was awake. And yet the smell persisted.
Next to him lay a steaming piece of meat.
Real meat. Where did it come from?
He realized the hut wasn’t empty. Someone stood next to him, unmoving like a rock. At first he thought it was Grower.
Niomir felt the hair on the back of his neck tingle. It wasn’t Grower.
It was Flat Face.
He stood above Niomir, peering at him with that remorseless gaze. Niomir glanced his way, looked at the meat. It was a roasted heart. The boar’s heart. His fingers twitched and his eyes grasped for it, his mouth watering…
But it was brought by Flat Face.
Still, Flat Face stared at him, saying nothing.
“Am I suppose to express gratitude?” Niomir asked. His voice was hoarse.
“That is not necessary,” Flat Face said.
Again, Niomir’s eyes wandered towards the steaming heart. “I swore to protect the tribe,” he said. “I did what I thought was right.”
“You don’t get to decide what is best for the tribe,” Flat Face said. “I do.”
“You are hurting the tribe, not saving it,” Niomir said. “I brought them food when no one else could.”
“And you still fail to see why this was strictly forbidden to you.”
Niomir remained silent. It was strange but Flat Face wanted to explain his thoughts to him. Niomir could not fathom why but he found himself raptly listening.
“The tribe is more than bodies and mouths,” Flat Face spoke. “What holds us together… What binds us into a tribe… Is immaterial as the spirits which we ask for guidance. Yet it is as fragile as our bodies. It cannot be harmed by cold or crushed by a rock, but it can be hurt and it can be killed. You were hurting the tribe.”
“And you?” Niomir said. “What were you doing except hurting the tribe?”
“The flesh is selfish,” said Flat Face. “In times of hardship, it wants us to forget what it means to be a tribe. If this happens… If we forget… Then we stop being the spawn of heaven. On that day, we turn into beasts. Your hunting skills might have fed our bellies but it made the soul of the tribe bleed. It I refused to have you punished, others would deem the edict unnecessary to follow. And that would’ve been the end of us.”
Niomir realized Flat Face spoke with ardent emotion. He cared deeply about what he’d just said.
“Is this your way of asking for my forgiveness?” Niomir said.
“I’m here to do no such thing,” Flat Face said. The naked emotion that was visible a moment before was gone behind the familiar icy mask. “You willingly acted against the edict and were treated with accordingly. I’m here to uphold another part of that edict: ‘The heart of the kill goes to the one that made the kill.’”
Niomir glanced at the boar’s heart again. He swallowed hard. “I’d rather starve than accept that from you,” he said.
“That is your choice to make,” Flat Face said. “It was also your choice to expose yourself to danger. But to take a spear and make meat when you were strictly forbidden… That is something I will not tolerate. That is something the spirits will not tolerate.”
“Have no fear, you have succeeded. I am no longer useful to you.” Niomir raised his maimed hand, lowered it quickly once the pain erupted.
“You can still be of use to the tribe.” From any other person, those words could have been considered encouraing. From Flat Face, they sounded utterly sinister.
“You hate me,” Niomir said. “Hate me for the same reason Setimika and others hates me.”
Flat Face shook his made minutely. “It is not who or what you are that vexes me. It is what you represent to the tribe. You are a dissentious seed, one that deems your own judgment above those of mine, your elder and superior. If you will not do as you’re told, it is my task to break your resolve… or break you in the process. Either way, you will submit to my will.”
Niomir stared at him, unflinching. Flat Face replied with his icy gaze. “You’re thinking of fleeing,” Flat Face said. It was not a question.
“You want to put me to use but you cannot have me out there if you’re worried about me fleeing.”
“I will have you watched,” Flat Face said.
“And what will you do if I try to run?”
Flat Face’s features were dead as stone. “You still have seven fingers.”
Niomir felt the cold cut into his soul. He could withstand starvation, beatings and even lashes on his bare back, but his fingers…