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When his eyes were almost open, the mucus around them licked away by his mother; it was plain that he was different. Even as she crooned, suckling him, she rolled her eyes at the insistent pull of his puckering mouth.
The birth was not a difficult one; it took place within a rough shelter, in a squatting position: she supported at the trunk and shoulders by two other women of the tribe. But they too saw the whites in her deep, brown eyes; saw those whites during the birth and after. And when they picked the shrivelled thing out of the dust, turned muddy with body fluids, they hurriedly wiped it over with slickened hands and gave it into the mother's shaking grasp. She gulped some water from a scooped husk and lay back upon a pile of bracken, holding him to her breast in the crook of a sinewy arm. It was almost sundown by then and only a faint light seeped through the shelter opening, though even that light was enough; the birthing pair withdrew, unable to give form to their emotions. This was not fear, nor delight. This was unknown.
Away up the narrow, tree-hemmed ravine the sky had turned into late yellow and purple; the trees themselves were now a lacery of darkening outlines, clustered thick with foliage, and the dim strings of vines. Fire crackled amongst a ring of stones casting shadows that stalked the onrush of night. Amid the slow drone of fading insect sounds, came a 'Nak-nak' of other noises; human made. These were the 'Nakking' of voices, or perhaps better still, of tongues making no particular words, but rather groupings of sounds that allayed the oncomimg of darkness and what might be hidden within. There was also the chit-chit of stone against stone, of flint splintered, of shards shearing; of wary industry, suspicious, ongoing. The fire leaped against the ring that held it. Long sticks of chopped branches, shorn to shafts, were turned in the coals, hardening to points.
The smell of half-cooked flesh simmered on the breeze as the fires whirled: and sparks fled into the blackness. Figures detached and undulated in the wavering glow, then dispersed beyond it. A snuffling arose that came not only from the younger of the tribe, but from the Elders as well. The 'Nak-nak' became a 'Nahh-nahh!' One amongst them was no longer able to move. There would be no new morning for her. And whilst they 'Nahhed' and pawed at the earth, and rubbed it into their skins, and the old lady before the fire became rigid and shrunken, the newborn wail fired them with a passion that was the triumph of life, forever, over death.
In the morning, by the faint light that quivered through the canopy of whispering leaves, the tribe began to stir. Several of the men, (They owned that name, though they were perhaps unaware of it,) sifted amongst the last embers of their fires; feeding them with dry litter, that they might blaze again into new life. Other males, some as young as ten and twelve, some as old as twenty, gathered their freshly fashioned sticks; the points now hard and black and sharp enough, and after drinking from water set aside for them, made away in several groups to forage amid the cold, dew-spattered depths. Women, even those with young, picked about the fringes of the camp-site; plucking at shoots, running wiry fingers into the brown soil to root out tubers and any small creature that might dwell there.
To the few left behind fell the duty of farewell. And Tahi, who had given birth the evening before, was expected to assist. Together with the Elder women, she crawled around; her baby clutched to her chest, scooping at a hollow that slowly began to grow in the earth. When it was done to their satisfaction, several of their number dragged the ancient, dead woman into the pit, and there strew her body with the trappings of worldly life; greenery, stones, twists of human hair, combs of bird bone and scraps of animal fur. Tahi's gift was a piece of clotted afterbirth; a gift of the new living to the old dead.
Then they covered the body; feet first, and on up the legs to the torso and head, raking with hands and feet until it was finished. Afterward, they moaned and cried. Perhaps this appeased them. Perhaps they saw themselves. Perhaps this had already become the formality of ritual.
Later, before the sun lay directly overhead, the men returned carrying their catch; the catch needed to advance them one more day, one more step into the unknown. But it was no more than could sustain them all for another night. This was nothing new of course. It meant only a time to move on. For that coming, lazy afternoon and into darkness, they would eat and rest and copulate. The next morning would see them depart their straggling leaf shelters, those flimsy erections that were soon to fall apart, and wander over a day or more until the next ripe spot. This was their habit and their nature.
Being a hunter-gatherer folk they travelled vast distances in the course of a year, following game, or sometimes wandering randomly in an erratic pursuit, since the tribe was not sufficiently organised nor mobile enough to keep pace with the diverse migrations of birds and mammals. At times they tracked and squandered chances, through simple lack of experience and initiative. At others they stumbled across roaming herds of great ox, bantengs, managed to bring one or two down, and gorged where these creatures fell; only to find the rest of the herd long gone when the feasting was over.
During the period of this tale the patterns of wild life, and indeed the climate itself were altering. The sun remained longer in the sky than those with memory could recall, though they were slow to perceive such change over several generations and the interim of many seasons. However, winters were shorter and milder and the habits of their prey varied accordingly. The landscape too was not as the hunter-tribes remembered; there were fewer open tracts; jungle had begun to devour the land, choking it with creepers and ferns and deep thickets filled with gloom and menace. And to each individual tribe there were the others, folk like themselves and unlike themselves. Like, in as much as that they walked erect, bore tools and weapons: unlike in that they were often hostile, sometimes evasive and timid ... Sometimes dead.
To The Tribe, this was baffling. Why, when discovered, did these unknown people remain unmoving, never to move again? What had made them so? Some groups, it was plain, had died violent deaths; their flesh stripped away, bones broken open lengthwise and spinal apertures to the skulls enlarged to extract marrow and brains. These practices were known to The Tribe and were part of survival, though they had long since dispensed with them amongst their own unless out of utter desperation. But there were others, whole clans, discovered where they had fallen: left intact, apart from the depredations of animals and insects. These, The Tribe avoided. Something, some inner sense, warned them away.
To them it was much as of long ago in the vestiges of dream: testing this plant, this growing thing, this creature or that. Eat, taste; swallow. Inside, did it feel good? Or did it make you puke? Or worse, did it make you lie down and thrash and scream and throw fear of the unknown into those watching from afar, until the eater convulsed and slowly, slowly became stiff. And so did The Tribe treat the mystery of unexplained death. A thing that killed without sign crammed their unreasoning minds with abject fear, and like any animal, they fled it in loathing.
The Tribe, His tribe, remained isolated and did not return upon the old paths. For the migratory trails were changing, becoming confused: climatic alteration had slowly disturbed water sources, the encroaching jungles were reclaiming open lands, forcing herds further afield in search of grazing pastures, and the predators that lived off them either adapted to the new conditions or followed. This Tribe, almost without comprehension, moved forward over long distances; for the most part travelling with the sun rising on their faecal hands and setting upon their food hands. This direction, though they probably had no name for it, was roughly South.
Sometimes there was water to ford; streams and rivers where the far side lay within sight and thus within reach. Logs were floated across, occasionally with disastrous results, which made The Tribe extremely wary of such ventures, so much so that they would journey for miles to find an easier passage. Yet there were times of little choice; fear of lightning struck wildfire or other enemies pressing at their backs forced them on.
As the days and the seasons passed, Tahi's child grew. The father was Banta, and he named the baby Nambi, a word which to them meant Stone. But as the child began to babble sounds that later became like to those of The Tribe, he chose his own name, Yat. Yat: Fire. And would answer to no other.
Almost from the beginning Yat was fascinated by fire. The fire they carried with them where possible, or that which they created, spinning wood against wood. And especially the fire that was brought down once from the sky, very near to where The Tribe camped during a terrible storm, filled with black clouds and forks of light and ear-splitting sounds, that kept them cowering. Until a tree burst into flame and collapsed with a splintering roar, that sent the people scattering. They knew enough of fire to appreciate its value, though they also feared its unpredictable nature.
Perhaps that is why Yat had well named himself. Even his father and mother watched him with something akin to fear and awe whilst he sat, his gley eyes intent upon the fire-makers, or staring, unblinking into the dancing flames. In vain, his parents drew him away, chattering and slapping at him, but he always returned to dabble amongst the dying embers. There was no stopping Yat. By the time he could walk and make his needs known, he had become to The Tribe Yat, the child of the fire. In his dark eyes they saw the bobbing of the flames and the sparks of something else; something that dared the fire, and them. Indeed there were those of The Tribe who would have killed him, if Banta and Tahi had given them a chance.
None however attempted such an act, until Tharta, a young male who wished to elevate himself in the ranks of his peers, grew audacious enough to try. Much was at stake; the destruction of the child of fire would give him power and status amongst The Elders and Leaders, all of whom looked ever more on Yat as one set apart from themselves; or so Tharta believed. With Yat's death at his hand the child's fire would become his, and in turn he would become Yat.
And so Tharta waited until a darkness, one moon-shrouded night when most of the people were asleep and only Banta remained drowsing close to where Yat played about the stones that ringed the main camp fire. Filling himself with strength and courage, Tharta stole forward, a shard of rock gripped in his eating hand.
When Banta awoke to the screams, he found Tharta rolling in the dirt at his feet, clutching at his face in sickening pain whilst Yat tumbled amongst the red-hot coals beyond. Abruptly, there arose the stench of seared flesh into Banta's nostrils: from both Yat and Tharta.
Afterward, Yat bore the scars from the fire on his arms and body, and The Tribe looked upon them with dark memory. Tharta was blinded in one eye; the result of burning coals thrust from the child's swift hand. Yat had fought with the only weapon he knew.
Yat was an aberration from those of his kin and blood. Yat was of them, but different. Yat dwelt upon fire, and fire was Yat; even after he had experienced its terrible pain and it had saved his life. And Yat knew, in his small, cunning way, that others feared him and that even as a child he might make them do as he wanted. To begin with, Yat did not know what he wanted. But he knew what he did not want; he did not want Tharta near him, and made that plain enough. Tharta, for his part, was shamed and disgraced. The loss of his eye was punishment enough, and a reminder both to himself and to the others of The Tribe, who shunned him for a long time. They, of whom Banji was the undisputed chief, observed this incident with some reservation. To them, the child was of no great concern, and had simply acted in self-defence. It was the reaction of others, especially The Elders, which caused some foredoom; vague yet tantalising. The child had no real power; was nothing more than a child that was drawn to fire. And yet each of The Tribe, The Elders included, decided that he should be watched.
There were, however, at that time other more pressing matters that drew their attention. Food of course was a daily event, and the gathering of it was of prime consideration. Apart from the wild bantengs, they hunted monkeys, pigs, tapirs, bamboo rats and the giant pangolins. When it was possible, they drove a lone rhinoceros or stegodon over cliffs to doom.
When it was possible.
Large game had been unsighted for many weeks. The Tribe survived on that which could be gleaned from the earth and the forests: insects, small birds, tubers and fungus. Sometimes one of their number was violently sick after eating a strange creature or plant, and Yat eyed this with much curiosity; even sniffing over the spewed up remains in an attempt to remember what it was that had caused the sickness. Others watched him at it. Yat knew he had no special powers, but he also sensed that some guessed him different in a way they could not reason. And the more they stared at his antics, the more he acted for them.
It was the women of The Tribe who first paused in their diggings and gathered to gaze furtively at his playings. He appeared not as the other young in The Tribe, spending his waking time apart and alone. He was dependant upon his mother Tahi, and she only; but even she looked on him with questions in her eyes. Why did he chew and spit out things that had made others heave and wail? Why did he waste his days, watching and waiting with the sick ones, or the old near to death? Yat became a question to her, and eventually to The Tribe. Why was Yat fire, and fire Yat?
Yat, at this early age could not have answered such questions, although he had a child's sneaking intuition to his growing position. He saw that he was being set apart, by setting himself apart. He had little more thought than to prolong this: to enjoy the suspicion and awe of others, and to survive. And if survival meant appearing unlike those of The Tribe, without causing their anger, and only their mystification, he determined in an unconscious, though cunning, animal way to continue.
There were occasions when Tahi scolded him; angered at his fascination with the fires, or wanderings alone during the days; but this was nothing new. In any event his lone explorations often produced some overlooked source of food, however small, and The Tribe grudgingly accepted his offerings without comment. Tahi found it difficult to watch him every moment, since he had developed an increasing ability to slip off when she became distracted by the chores of camp routine. Often his lone excursions led him into potential danger; fierce animals lurked the deep groves and snakes abounded, but somehow he managed to avoid them. In truth Yat became as unpredictable as the fire of his name. And when he was able to carry away a few live coals, scooped up in the hollow of a discarded bone, he would make fire at the end of a dry branch, using it not for warmth or cooking, but as protection, even as a weapon.
The men of the time utilised fire in this way, not so much as individuals, since they relied on stone and wood fashioned into axes, clubs and throwing sticks, but in group hunting where it was useful for flushing game or driving creatures into pits or over cliffs. Yet on such a scale, fire was an uncertainty that they risked only when the wind was suitable and the country about already well scouted.
Yat observed them from hiding, and by his secret observations had learned more than any of The Tribe could have known. When other male children were taken along with the hunters on short trips Yat had already gained the experience passed down to them by the men folk in practice and by the Elders in theory. Alone, he had warded off a pair of wild pigs with his fire. Alone, he had floated on a log out into the still backwater of a meandering stream; felt the water lapping at his legs amongst the slimy, rotting vegetation; watched in fear the half-submerged eyes watching him drift by. Alone, he had killed a snake that reared before him, and alone had brought the serpent back; dropping it at the campfire's edge. Much had been made of that, but Yat, secretly pleased, ignored the women, and even the men, when later they sat about roasting it. Cunningly, Yat realised that to be silent and aloof, even as young as he was, was to make his power grow. It is probably true that he had no real conception of where and to what that power might take him, and acted purely out of some basic instinct that kept him always alert and guarded. However, the childish game had become a gradually emerging battle to sustain the image that others of his people began to see of Yat. As he grew, he sensed that he could never be seen to falter, or the mystery of himself; coupled with fire would crumble like dry, old bone.
So the days passed, and the moon waxed full and waned many times over as The Tribe moved slowly on, with little more intent than to seek new feeding grounds. Yat had become a spindly child, pot-bellied, but wiry of limbs. His brown skin, though baked by the sun and washed by rains, was yet smooth and unwrinkled; healthy enough in those times of little food, then gorging, followed again by periods of near starvation. Perhaps the secret to this was that Yat had a nose, a sharp beaked nose, for food. His eyes, squinting, inquisitive black eyes, found food that others missed, and he even snatched it from places where none of The Tribe would dare. He stole the catches from bird-eating spiders using fire to blaze entry through the tangle of tough webs. He scrambled high into the jungle canopy to reach eggs in nests where men would not bother for fear of falling.
And so, seeking eggs one particular day when The Tribe had camped in a mountainous wooded region, he discovered the cave. When he reached it, climbing up between ferns and tall palms to rocky outcrops where birds hovered on the wind, Yat halted, to stare in open wonder. Before him, high in the whistling hills was a place that appeared to his gaze as strange as if he had looked upon a modern cathedral.Chapter 2