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Beyond the Dreamtime
Chapter Twelve - Fire
This time it was different.
This time Yat's clan had grown strong, unhindered, on the bounty extracted from their new home, and their number had increased roughly proportionate to food supply and general harmonious conditions.
Almost two years had elapsed since their arrival on the shores of the twin peaked island. And during that period the people had moved from camp to camp, discovering and utilising much that came readily to hand; adapting to and drawing from the reservoir of environment they now found themselves part of. Under the leadership of Cros and with Yat's continued example, they not only harvested the land's wildlife, materials and undomesticated crops, but also that of the sea.
Their rafts plied the inland waters and coastal regions, the clan-folk spearing and netting fish, collecting oysters and mussels from rocky holds and gathering kelp to be dried and stored in a growing larder against poorer times.
Flightless fowl were kept alive in caged runs constructed of bamboo and vines, as Yat had seen done by his enemies; and he, realising the benefit of such practice after puzzling over it for some time, was elated when the creatures produced eggs and young.
The people too eventually saw that this was good, though being basically nomadic hunters moving periodically, there were limitations to the process so that it was never expanded or fully developed.
Still, Yat's clan heeded much of their shaman's wisdom and advice, including the stockpiling of timber for fire in dry areas, the selection of flint and tinder for its production and the more elaborate building of shelters against the unpredictable elements.
When the monsoonal rains fell, the clan were better prepared, better provisioned and better sheltered to withstand such sudden downpours.
And they were united beneath their crude canopies of vine and timbers overlapped with broad, rubbery leaves strung between the girths of trees where the cooking fires did not falter; and this in itself filled them with a sense of security and comfort long absent in their wanderings.
In the course of time much of this new territory was walked over by the hunter-gatherers without encountering other humans, though Yat, on occasion, felt a chill beneath his six-toed feet where he trod some strange, new area.
There were no remains obvious to the eye, no dwellings or bones, only overgrown thickets where clearings might once have been, and greening mounds under which were the faintest streaks of charred debris.
And there were large expanses of flattish, smooth rock or stone of a kind he and his people had never before seen. These places, devoid of almost all growth, ran from the slopes of the northern peak, spilling into the jungle until swallowed up by the encroaching riot of ground creepers.
Yat and several others, including Tahi, who was now elevated to Elder Mother, explored these grey wastes, climbing to the summit of the mountain, to stare down from its rim into a dark void. This was a mountain with a cave at the top that fell away into its very middle.
This was a place where none dared descend.
Rubble, disturbed by their feet, echoed into the blackness and ended with a distant plunking, as if striking water far below. Last to depart, Yat carried away with him an undefined impression of foreboding; there was something evil about the hollow stone mountain, its bleak, watery interior and the living air around it.
Exactly what that evil was, Yat could not guess; though often afterward he pondered the mystery.
Soon enough however, his attentions were drawn in other directions.
Cun, full with child, racked with bitter pain and long labour, lingered on the point of death; expelling at last the dead and terrible creation of their union.
The thing was so repugnant, so malformed, that Yat upon sight of it involuntarily heaved until the heaving filled his head as well as his hawking gullet and gut.
It took all his strength to gather up the bloodied, gristled abomination and stagger off into the deeps of forest, his arms running with smeared liquid, there to hide it away beneath the potent, leaf-rotting soil.
When he returned, Cun was sleeping the sleep of utter, wounded exhaustion; her ruptured body, having quit the violation of its depths, freed of a burden far beyond that of six-fingers, six-toes, was vulnerable to any infection. Her mind, fleeing into the realm of nightmare images, lay on the brink of hysteria. From that moment, looking down at the contorted features of his woman, Yat gave himself wholly over to her through the many days until she began the process of recovery. Love, as classic love, played little or no part in this.
She was, and he was.
Cun had chosen his way, and Yat felt it his responsibility, after such a terrible ordeal, to care for her.
Had he thought otherwise he could simply have taken another woman and none would have resisted, even as they cringed from his embrace out of fear at what might befall them; but he did not.
He acted instead upon impulses governed by his own inimitable nature; instinct, cunning, and perhaps a tenderness that he could never understand, let alone admit.
Cun belonged to him, and he belonged to himself, and selfishly, he cared for his standing and power and possessions above all else.
When the bleeding and oozing secretions from her vagina began to cease and her torn body slowly resumed to function, Yat took her back to his own fire: but for a long time thereafter, not to his bed.
He sensed her reluctance as she healed, and he guessed that she had seen, even through the blinding pain, the awful product of their union.
Times then were as times now: unforeseen events arise to alter or to belittle what at a moment is important, and soon is not.
Upon the northern coast, under a cloudless sky, Cros and several of his followers, hauling in a morning catch, glimpsed something far out to sea that swiftly claimed their attention.
The thing, floating low on the horizon, resolved into a raft, and huddled upon it were the skin and bones figures of living human beings.
Under Yat's supervision, these survivors were dragged through the shallows to the shore and laid out beneath the fronds of overhanging palms.
The clan-folk might just as easily have butchered these helpless wrecks, but were held in check by their shaman, even when it was discovered that some at least had belonged to The Tribe; especially the break-away leader Tharta One-eye, now cast before them and at their mercy.
Again the miracle of survival against tremendous odds had been achieved, and Yat recognised this feat even as he stared down into the emaciated features of his past rival.
Not for a moment had he forgotten Tharta's attempt on his life in their childhood, and his later treachery with the division of The Tribe. And he distrusted his old foe no less at this latest meeting; but Yat saw that much could be learned which might be of worth, and so set about persuading his angry people against vengeance.
With the secured permission of those Elders present, and of Cros, Tharta and his followers were borne back to the clan encampment and treated kindly enough as they recovered. Though by no means were they welcomed without some hint of suspicion and even resentment; the past could not be so simply forgotten.
Tharta, chastened by the struggle to survive in a land peopled by hostile enemies who tortured and killed whenever the opportunity arose, reacted surprisingly to Yat's intervention on his behalf, obeying any order given him without question. Indeed, it appeared that since the abortive uprising and miserable existence apart from the main body of his people, ending with the flight across the ocean on little more than the crudest of log constructions, he had changed in many ways. No doubt the loss of almost all who had accompanied him in his reckless pursuit, and the expectancy of death at any time had much to do with this. And though sour by nature and the legacy of his lost eye, he managed to gain a grudging respect in his efforts to make amends.
All in all, in the time that followed, he earned his keep without stint or complaint: well aware that his life was in Yat's six-fingered hands, as indeed were the other rebels.
The captive women and their children were a different matter. Their ways were strange and often deplorable. The three women treated their young off-handedly, sometimes cruelly, perhaps as they had been treated by their men-folk, and reacted to clan orders with defiance alternating to cowering surliness so that they were in the beginning almost useless for all but the simplest of camp tasks.
Tahi, the grey streaks of a hard life now appearing amongst her tangled black hair, made it her business and that of the other Elder women to watch over these unpredictable aliens; never allowing them the freedom to cause mischief where an opportunity might arise.
They were given food and shelter, permitted to tend their children without harming them, and gradually trained into the clan routine and requirements.
Initially, they were not allowed to mingle with the clan men, and by night were strictly segregated until such time as it was considered proper for their intermarriage, both to The Tribe and also to any individual who would be foolhardy enough to accept responsibility.
And indeed it seemed that several of the younger males were attracted by this forbidden fruit, but kept their distance, mindful of Tahi and her companions.
Yat, Cros, Kari and the other seasoned men of The Tribe were however concerned with a matter of greater importance; the land of two mountains was theirs alone. Yet if Tharta and his band could cross the open sea, how long would it be until the enemy, or some other tribe, perhaps in vast number, also made the crossing?
This, none could foretell, not even Yat, though he spent a good deal of time questioning the women both in sign and in such language mutual to them.
Mishfa, the most cooperative, and perhaps the most intelligent of the three, reluctant at first, later prattled away, her dark eyes watching Yat's, her hands and arms moving in quick gestures so that meaning was conveyed to the foreign sounds of her own tongue.
In the end, Yat decided that she had little more to tell than he had already heard from Tharta other than that her people had dwelt in their land for time beyond her memory, and had never travelled beyond its boundaries; certainly not across the ocean.
But then, as Yat later thought, there now was reason for them to attempt such journey to reclaim their own, especially since they had seen Tharta's departure upon his poor imitations of log rafts.
The question required further consideration, and at a council meeting gathered together on Yat's initiation he spoke about his concern and asked for other opinions.
Now this council was in itself unprecedented in The Tribe's history: never before had a total assemblage been summoned, not even by The Elders, and definitely not by a young man who was not so much as a Warrior-Leader. And to begin with many were confused and overawed, challenged as they were by this strange clan shaman to speak their minds.
However, mindful to enforce his credibility and status, Yat produced the banteng horns and set them amid the many fires flaring into the night sky.
And, at this single statement of his power, The Tribe settled into an uneasy lull, squatting in groups and muttering in low voices until Yat silenced them and called for individual speakers.
These in turn, hesitant, arose to have their say; warming slowly to the subject and the situation.
Some, the men mainly, voted to stay and make ready in case of invasion.
The Elders, Tahi foremost, spoke of moving further from the coast to safer places where the children and old people could be better protected.
A few suggested making their camp close to the northern peak from where they might stand and fight on higher ground if needed. Eventually Tharta was pressed into the debate by Yat; who guessed him to have greater knowledge of the enemy than any other present.
Obediently, sheepishly, Tharta One-eye began by retelling the tale of events that had followed after his angry separation from the main body of Yat's followers; acting out much of it in mime and gesture.
The painted folk were, he told, determined to kill or drive away any within their land, and it was only by keeping on the move that he and his band had survived until the wet seasons when the enemy chose to remain close to their main camp. Why this was so he was unsure, though in truth the reason was a simple one, if not in the minds of hunter-gatherer's scope. The painted folk were no longer nomadic.
They were in fact lingering on the borders of a new way of life which would one day in the far future see them evolve into herders and growers, fiercely coveting the territory wrenched from jungle wilderness.
This however did not occur to Tharta, nor to any of The Tribe including Yat, who were primarily interested only with the possibility of attack.
That such an event might come to pass, Tharta unwittingly strengthened as he continued his storytelling of how his few able men managed to construct rafts, as he had seen Yat do, whilst he led others in a daring raid.
This raid, in itself a last resort to gain time before the enemy could next strike, caught them unprepared and several of their women and children were carried off as hostages before the painted folk had recovered from the audacity of such an attack.
Escaping into the jungle, Tharta and his men made a swift march through the depths, hoping to lure the enemy after them.
In this they were successful, almost to their downfall, since the captives hindered progress until threatened with death, and often after, the warriors were bitterly to regret their actions.
At length however Tharta managed to lose the pursuers and, turning in a wide circle, led his followers south toward the coast.
Arriving there, he found that his people had almost completed the preparations for their journey in search of The Tribe, and at once took to the rafts, even as the enemy flocked to the shore.
With some loss of life, Tharta's exhausted band managed to make out to sea on their rudimentary and ill-provisioned craft: then followed the terrible period of hardship which eventually led to landfall; though not before the weakest had perished.
When Tharta fell silent at the conclusion of his tale, that silence engulfed the listeners, so that only the roar of the fires remained.
His long absence had almost erased the memory of those troubled lands from the minds of Yat's people, yet now they were made starkly aware once again of an enemy across the water, and of the possibility of that enemy arriving to destroy them.
They had no way of knowing that this pursuit would never occur; since the painted folk were content to have driven off the invaders and cared little as to the fate of the hostages, who to them had become nothing more than outcasts.
The only sure thing that The Tribe knew was that the ocean could be crossed: and in this single notion their feelings of security waned.
At length it was the captive woman Mishfa who, misunderstanding her own situation and that of Tharta's, broke the stillness; chattering away in her native tongue and enjoying her apparent privilege with some gusto.
Tharta, aware of the stony faces surrounding them, cautioned her into silence with a swift slap as he took his place amongst the others, and she succumbed without a whimper.
For a time, the gathered folk remained impassive in their confusion, but eventually lapsed into low mutterings that boded ill for the pair before them, whom they now considered to have brought down this woe upon their peaceful existence.
Yat had foreseen such a reaction, and in his mind had prepared himself to control it with the power of the shaman; and indeed this was the reason behind both Tharta and Mishfa's presence. Here was the medium that the shaman required to unite and rule, and to impose his personality and will in one swift and decisive action.
Without word or sign of his intentions, Yat arose and began the first slow movements of dance; distracting the onlookers from their growing resentment and riveting their attention to him.
The dance was familiar to them in its beginnings, until with ominous gestures, it took on a faster tempo to the sound of animal-like grunting spaced between Yat's heaving breath. As over and over he filled his lungs, expelling the air with a force that seemed in itself threatening to the watchers. After a time of building this tension, Yat advanced to where lay the banteng horns, his six-fingered hands striking together, and there he stood, willing silently but for the slap of his palms; demanding a reaction. Then his feet stamped, hands still beating an insistent rhythm, his eyes sweeping over them, until Tharta of all people took up the clapping and the harsh rush of breath.
Soon others followed until all, with the exception of bewildered Mishfa, were pressed into Yat's service.
The growing din continued until the shaman dropped his arms and halted his movement.
The clapping at once died out.
The noises emanating from their throats subsided and they were again aware of the crackling flames and the vague sounds of the night.
Then, in the matter of a few short strides, Yat reached Mishfa where she squatted, caught her up by a tangle of hair and dragged her, struggling, into the firelight.
At first she attempted to beat him off, screaming and lashing out with her fists, but his hold was so strong that her hair would certainly have been pulled out by the roots had she persisted.
Instead she sank upon her knees, her face forced down level with the banteng horns, whilst above her, with his free hand, Yat drew from the skin cloth at his back, a long bone sliver. Pulling her head upright in a single movement, the shaman held the blade poised against her throat.
There came a united gasp from the watchers.
Mishfa, her eyes rolling, the whites showing clearly in the yellow light, tried to wrench herself free of the hovering figure crouched over her. And as the panic rose from her gut, she saw through blurred vision the dark eyes of the shaman glinting down out of black orbs and the rows of teeth between blood red, fire red, lips.
Suddenly she ceased to fight: her arms, spread wide, hung almost at right angles to her body.
This was no more than she had come to expect from the men of her own tribe when a woman displeased them.
This was their death to others as well as their own. Throughout her childhood and to that very moment, she had feared and awaited such an end.
On the verge of fainting shock that absorbs even the most terrible wounds she felt a tremor in her legs as if the ground beneath her had shuddered.
She opened her mouth in a voiceless scream.
The knife ran with crimson blood. The drops spattered over the horns as Yat hauled her above them so that she dangled like a limp and dying creature.
But this was not so.
The blade had laid open the flesh of her breast beneath the collar-bone, and though it was no more than a shallow incision, the scar would always be there to remind her of that night.
Now the shaman's gaze fell upon Tharta.
Instinctively he crawled forward, sure that if he did not, the others would fall upon him in a blood-lust.
Here was the third figure in the ritual play; the bowed male, the half-conscious female, and the looming presence of The Shaman.
And Yat knew, in all his experience and confidence that he held the players and watchers in his grasp.
He knew that if he called forth any one of them; Cros, Tahi, Kari, Yabbi the Old Man or even Dik the newest Elder, that they would do his bidding.
Their every sense was alive to the spilling of human blood, and their curiosity aroused as to its meaning; and they dwelt upon the next moments of the unfolding action.
Together, they were his audience and he and the pair before them were the actors, though only Yat controlled the outcome. And here he began to draw together the final strands of his performance; in one crosswise movement he slashed a cut along Tharta's shoulder and pushed him down with a foot, so that his blood too spilled over the horns.
Then he kicked Tharta away, threw the woman aside and ran the knife along his own forearm in a thin line, and whilst the blood of the shaman mingled with that of the others, he lifted the banteng horns high above his head and carried them away into the darkness.
The onlookers remained unmoving in stunned silence.
At length, Tharta half-dragged, half-supported the dazed woman from the gathering, and made a bed for her and himself in the shadows beyond the fires; and there they spent the night, shivering in fright and relief.
As to the meaning behind Yat's mysterious ceremony, the people were left to draw their own conclusions.
Some saw it as a ritual slaying of the foe, embodied in one of their own people.
Others took that notion a step further, considering that Mishfa had been cleansed by death and renewed into life as blood-kin, united at once with Tharta as his woman, and with the shaman, who represented The Tribe.
A few thought that a greater power had flowed into the banteng horns by the blood-letting, and so was captured the strengths of the enemy in combination with that of their most powerful figure-head.
But Tahi and Cros were closest the mark when they spoke together; Yat's solution was peace.
Peace not only between himself and Tharta, but in the union of a man and a woman from two opposing peoples.
Yet if peace was not possible; if it was rejected, then Yat would stand above The Tribe, and under his protection, and his alone, they would fight any who came in war against them.
And as that concept spread amongst his folk, there were none that thought to speak out otherwise.
Not many days after, Yat moved the entire group southwards with the exception of a few coast watchers, strong runners at need, and began a line of communication stretching inland to a new campsite on the lowest slopes of the second mountain. There, amongst the last of the sprawling jungle dwindling toward the naked peak, The Tribe commanded both water from a swift flowing stream and a reasonable vantage point to survey the lands below.
Satisfied with this situation and a steady supply of food in the form of bird life and small animals, Yat decided upon a further course of action.
Apart from the most rudimentary forms of defence, since he and his people were by no means capable of constructing permanent settlements or by their very nature did they have any conception or desire to do so. It was of normal nomadic response to cast further afield toward fresh hunting areas, and, in Yat's view, to seek out other likely places ahead where the might flee in case of invasion.
With this thought in mind, he made it his business to climb the heights early one morning: a lone figure against the sky.
When he returned to the camp later that day, it took all his control to disguise the fear leaping in his belly. He told the clan of the coastline and the dots of islands beyond, but he did not speak of what else he had seen. At first they questioned him eagerly enough about the shores to the south, their minds upon fishing and oyster gathering, but it was not until Cros, sensing some deep dread behind Yat's brooding answers, pressed him further that the shaman spoke of his experience on the mountain.
The higher he climbed, Yat told them, the warmer the ground beneath his feet became.
By the time he drew close to the summit he could feel movement under them, as if the mountain itself was alive.
At the top, he looked down into a great hole and a terrible stench arose out of it that made him choke and burned his eyes.
There were sounds too, Yat said; faint rumbles like those of distant thunder mingled with the growling of some mighty, unseen animal.
His one glimpse into the pit, before being driven back by the overpowering smell, was of a glowing red eye, moving like angry water.
It was a place, Yat told them, of danger; more so than of the sea, or even of wild-fire when the sky strikes the forest. It was a place, he said, that they must leave without delay.
That night, The Tribe camped some distance from the mountain. Yat had sent word to the
watchers in the north to return, and told his people that they must travel on to the coast; there to begin the building of rafts that could carry them away.
Now, though there were those who yet doubted their shaman, they did as he bade; once again filled with apprehension at the prospect of facing the open sea, but even more afraid of this new, unknown menace.
At the camp fires, Yat, sombre and silent, let the others speak together; and when they had talked themselves out after much excited yabbering he left the meeting to sit apart by the fire that belonged to him and Cun.
Before sleep finally claimed her, Cun observed him squatting motionless, his arms drawn across his chest, the six fingered hands clutching at his shoulders.
In the morning, both Yat and Cros had gone, and did not return that night.
They departed before the first grey streaks of dawn, as the plaintive cries of waking birds echoed amongst the trees; leaving word with Tahi that they would catch up with the clan on its march to the coast.
Cros said that they were going to meet the men coming from the north, but Cun guessed otherwise, and when they did finally appear, it was plain that they had gone again to the mountain. Both were visibly shaken, their eyes reddened, and a strange smell of reeking fumes hung about their hair and bodies. The band of men with them were also clearly disturbed, and urged their people on in haste, without stopping for rest or food.
Those of The Tribe pushed through the deep thickets with as much caution as their speed would allow; wondering why Yat had elected to dare the peril of the mountain a second time. Had he gone there to drink in the power and strength of the unknown creature, or to plead for his people?
In fact, the answer was a complex one.
Yat, both fascinated and terrified, had made the climb with Cros at his side in order to establish the truth of his words, and yet it was almost as if he were drawn by some other motivation. Perhaps like that of a man testing himself, his will and courage, by walking through a graveyard at midnight. True, he felt it needful, as The Tribe Shaman, to face the ordeal again, and that one of his own bear witness.
But Cros, brave as he was in normal circumstances, would go only as far as the summit, feeling the tremblings at his feet and choking on the foul gases issuing from the gaping hole beyond.
Yat alone forced himself to the brink, and for one incredible instant, gazed down into the seething mass below.
Satisfied by his feat of self control, he backed away, reeling with the shock and the vapours, and then both he and Cros turned and fled the tormented sounds of upheaval in the depths. The line between courage and folly, and the motives that drove Man to act as he did in the past, and as he now does for that matter, have never been clearly defined or explained; nor perhaps will they ever be.
Yat did not know at the time what a volcano was.
He and his people had never, in their living memories or even in folklore, been in the vicinity of an active crater. Quite possibly, some in past generations, may have heard or seen the discharge of a distant eruption, and taking it for thunder and lightning and the fire wrought by such phenomenon, kept well clear.
Perhaps, unknowingly, some had climbed the grass-covered remains of extinct craters, or in the case of Yat's folk, walked the slopes of the northern peak across ancient pumice without more than a casual interest.
But Yat, approaching the edge of the violent and unpredictable, filled with all the primitive urges and fears of the dark night that was his heritage, was still incapable of understanding the full weight, the immensity of destruction that lay before him.
Even so, there could be no mistaking the latent, brute power, the heat, the intoxicating fumes and the threatening rumbles of the mountain; what it might do, what it could do at any moment only gave strength to Yat 's conviction to f lee as far as was possible.
And if that meant taking again to the sea, then he was prepared to do so.
During the days following, Yat urged his people, almost non-stop, to reach the coast, and on arrival, to begin the building of rafts.
They worked at a frantic pace, cutting, hauling, fashioning, gathering, as the gaunt grey mountain to the north belched a rising spume of noxious gases.
Ash filtered through the air in a steady rain, and fire leapt from the summit; standing out clearly against the sky. Now the people did not need further convincing; no attack by an enemy or ravaging herd of wild animals could have driven them the swifter in their labours.
When the lava bubbled over the lip of the crater to spill in great, running rivers down the mountainside The Tribe were already pushing out across the shallows on their hastily lashed rafts.
Everything they could carry in the way of food and water was packed amongst the jostling peoples aboard their craft, which numbered some eight afloat; unbound logs rolling or wedged, awaiting positioning and securing after departure.
At sea, through the night, Yat and his folk witnessed in awe the mighty bellow and combustion of the volcano as it blazed on the horizon.
The creature had awoken; a living being that spat fire and putrid air, the smell and the ashes wafting down into the ocean about them in the form of carbonic and hydrochloric acids, sulphur dioxide, sulphuric acid and sulphuretted hydrogen, nitrogen and ammonia.
In the dawn they gazed back, listening to the crack and rumble, still able to see the rolling streams of molten lava spewing from the ragged peak into the lushness of jungle beneath.
The rafters were mystified and shocked and thankful; their shaman had led them out of danger, a danger that now washed against and below their craft, lifting them southward whilst the tremors from the island radiated into the empty expanse before them.
All that day and the following, Yat's people drifted south whilst they worked to complete the structure of the rafts. Eventually, they moved over a sea bottom so shallow and clear that men, if any so dared, could stand waist deep and wade over long distances.
Instead they poled and rowed, constantly searching the line of the ocean ahead for land.
After crossing deeper passages they encountered small islands; some little more than sandy atolls of sparse vegetation supporting only bird life, others useful for brief hunting and the renewal of precious water supplies from tiny inland pools and streams.
Fortunately there were rains; swift monsoonal downpours, sudden squalls blowing up into the seafarers faces and gentle drizzle out of sombre skies.
Yat and his folk captured this life-giving water in all manner of receptacles; bottle gourds, animal bladders, the shells of clams and turtles and coconut husks.
Fishing and fowling as they progressed, they survived on this diet into deeper waters where lurked creatures glimpsed only as vast shadowy forms far beneath the fragile rafts. Several times, as the grouped craft bobbed forward and the days passed, huge, leathery fins, gleaming like rain-washed pandanus leaves, surfaced to circle and dive and re-surface, cutting through the ocean with terrifying speed.
Once, rising out of the sea, the great maw of an enormous shark crashed down into the water-logged timbers of Kari's raft; sending it shuddering sideways, the logs slamming together, crushing the foot of a woman, who later died from shock and blood loss.
Only the mixture of panic and courage of those aboard saved the craft from overturning, as frantically they drove the monster off; thrusting and clubbing at the hump of a nose jutting forward above rows of teeth, each the size of a man's hand.
In an uproar of fury, foam and blood, the shark disengaged and was at once set upon by others in a killing frenzy.
Heaving paddles with all their strength, limbs shaking, bowels turned liquid, the cries of children and the terrible screams of the injured woman filling their ears, the rowers pulled free of the surging mass to rejoin the group where the rafts wallowed in the comparative safety of sand bars.
But safety was never certain: there were other smaller, though no less deadly creatures in the ocean; spiked star-fish, huge globular jelly-fish and a myriad unknown stinging, poisonous denizens that could claim lives in a variety of ways. To tread upon a stone fish, brush against the tentacles of almost transparent jelly masses, or eat any one of a number of unmarked, unknown fish was to invite agony that could not be stemmed by even the shaman.
Now vainly, Yat and his people searched the horizon in the hope of land, but none was to be sighted.
They had rowed and drifted into a vast, empty stretch of ocean that seemed to cover everything, behind and beyond. Yat could not have known, without climbing a tall tree, that away to the east lay a wide, green-clad country extending both north and south.
Instead, he pursued the direction previously followed, with the setting sun upon his food hand.
Being newcomers to the ways of the open sea, the sky, even the tell-tale signs of far-ranging birds and the subtle swell of currents, pushed out into mainstream waters, that were the
echoes of waves rebounding from invisible shores, Yat's clan continued through a passage of days and nights beyond their ability to count.
When finally they came to land; pitiful land with scant water and little offering of food, Yat surveyed the rim of ocean that circled their world with mounting fear.
There was nothing in any direction but the constant, rolling sea.
And he saw, as did the others, that their survival was limited to the swiftly diminishing supplies and anything they could grub or catch.
As the clan's spirits ebbed, Yat forced them by his will alone, to reconstruct their rafts from the poor stock of timber available; though where they were to venture he could not answer.
There were only two answers of certainty; the clan could not go back, nor could they remain, unless to eventually cannibalise after devouring all that this last refuge might offer up. Even the waters about could not sustain them overly long with the onset of harsh weather, which made deeper fishing further out an impossibility.
They were left to shelter as best they were able, beneath flimsy structures, huddled together whilst the storms raged and their bellies shrank.
For a long time rain sleeted across the ocean, churning the waves into white foam so that all the world appeared turned to water and darkness.
It was in fact at the climax of one violent downpour, after thunder had rumbled across the sky and the high winds had ripped away their fragile cover, that Yat emerged into the sudden relief of grey, shredding clouds and the warmth of the sun. And there peered into the southeast and the sight of a low smudge, ashen against the far blue outline of water. He watched that smudge grow, rising over the rim of the ocean, for several days; even climbing one of the few stunted trees for a better vantage point, though in this instance nothing more could be seen of consequence.
Still he watched, squinting into the distance over the turbulent sea without ever a certainty of his guess; and yet, when the smudge slowly erased and vanished one morning, he resolved to attempt a journey in that direction.
At the meeting that night there were the usual fears and objections.
Confidence in Yat's abilities as shaman had dwindled. Many, including most of The Elders, bemoaned their eventual end, either on the island or at sea, but they were to be swayed; so demoralised had they become that it was easier to give in than to protest over-long.
Cros, Kari and the main body of men, with only the enemy of starvation weighed against the enemy of the sea, voted with Yat. After all, they reasoned, it was better to do something than nothing.
But others, including Yat's mother Tahi, raised questions; 'What had he seen? Was there land ahead?'
Yat's answer was smoke. That was what he believed he had seen; not cloud, but smoke.
'The smoke of what? Enemy camps, fiery mountains?'
Yat countered by answering truthfully; fires of unknown peoples meant land, perhaps enough to share. Burning mountains meant land, maybe big enough to find a place away from their danger.
Or perhaps it was neither.
Perhaps it was the fire made when the angry sky struck the earth.
But at least he was sure that it was smoke, and smoke came of fire, and fire burned only on land; and land was what they needed to survive.
There was no dancing that night.
The banteng horns lay untouched before the dying, low fuelled flames whilst Yat's folk sank into hungry and exhausted sleep.
They waited only long enough to ensure that the weather had indeed improved, and when the days grew marginally longer and the sky remained clear, the clan took to their rafts; carrying with them every scrap of food and every container of water that they could muster.
The lonely strip of land that they left behind, littered with the refuse of a migratory people, sank away against the northern horizon, and later, even that naked, wretched dot became in the minds of Yat's people as a lost haven by comparison to the deprivations they were to suffer.
The rafts crossed deep water, circled by ever-present sharks, and the haunted cries of sea birds played over rolling waves; filling the voyagers with an intense anxiety and emptiness. They journeyed through boundless sand banks and coral reefs and out into the open ocean where the currents, mysterious and powerful beneath the calm surface, slewed their craft westward, then capriciously south and east.
During the course of many days and nights the rafts maintained contact, rowing, poling and sometimes merely drifting while their weary crews slumped together, too weak to do more than huddle amidst the confusion of saturated logs parting and bumping as the swell gradually broke down the bindings. With food all but gone and only fish to supplement their dwindling diet, water became of even more important moment. When rain fell, the rafters caught it in anything they could; often spilling much in their haste and haggard state. At these times it became almost impossible for each raft leader to control those aboard, and there were some, scrambling and fighting, who indeed pitched into the sea and were lost to the sharks.
Finally, when there was nothing else but the scant takings of each day's travel, they fell to human flesh. In their madness, the people turned upon each other; the weak, the dead, even the remains of those taken by sharks: and at times there were remains, cut clean off during the night and left upon the raft edges in the mornings.
Yat could do little to halt this terrible progress into cannibalism and hysteria.
Rafts vanished during the night, or appeared as broken masses devoid of all life.
Once, a craft strewn with the bloated bodies of the dead bobbed through the mists and floated away.
Only the strongest maintained any semblance of order, and if they slept they risked death at the hands of the others.
Emaciated, a stick-figure of sinew over a bony frame, Yat held rigidly on, watching the numbers dwindle around him, clinging to life as he searched the horizon, and aware that if he sank into oblivion, he and his family would never awake.Chapter 13 to follow
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