Volume 4 Number 4

MYTHOLOG

Autumn 2006



We Painted Red

by Eric Stever

I am a hunter, one of only two wrong-handed in our group. The other wrong-hander is a woman, marrowed to another. She came to us from the north, and the other women did not accept her as tree-to-earth. Shia had told us of the need to contain her power, and he had led us well through the past dry times. And so, I did not return the woman's frequent gaze, though she was light-eyed and possessing of strange words. I did as Shia commanded me, as I had been taught.

But when I heard the songs of demons drifting on the wind, I was weak and went to them. I held my sling, ready to slay our enemies from the north, if it were they who were taunting our group with the forbidden songs. But my grasp was slack on the sling as I walked into the bush. I knew what called me.

I walked into the clearing near the sweet tree. The wrong-handed woman continued singing, trapping her ancestors with each puff of air. The demons danced on my ears.

"Bwish, you must not," I said. "Shia will banish you."

Bwish continued singing, her eyes dancing with the bird sounds at her command. Finally, she put down the small bone and spoke.

"Shia will do nothing. He will watch the birds as he always has, while the northern groups grow stronger. He will wait for Dwa to paint yellow, while my people paint black and move through the grass without fear. They know their ancestors. They do not wait for signs."

Bwish picked up the bone and began singing through it again, louder this time.

I hungered to touch the small demon-singer, to feel the small knobs where her fingers danced, taming the demon sounds. I wanted to put my mouth where hers had been, to make the sounds she had. The calls were so unlike the ones our ancestors made through us during the clap-circle. But Shia had told us this was wrong, and would trap our ancestors inside the bone. I did not reach out.

Bwish stared at me as she sang. Even her eyes had the lights of demons. She finished her song, the birds fading into the night.

"You want to learn, to set your ancestors free?"

I looked at the ground, hiding my shame. "Dwa will paint it," I said. "The group will be cursed."

Bwish smirked but said nothing, pulling back her long, braided hair as she stood up. "You are already cursed," she said walking back toward the tree groves.

She held up her demon-singer. "This is the soft wind, and our ancestors travel it freely. This is what they call for now. Your clap-circle is not enough."

I shook my head, and the wrong-handed woman walked off.

Shia would know, I thought. And our group would be cursed.

***

The next morning I awoke late, my sleep ice not melting until the morning food was already prepared. I cracked the ice in one leg, and then the other, rising slowly from my skins. Schlumb was yelling about his next great hunt to the laughter of some of the smaller children. He walked over and greeted his marrowed, Bwish, as she returned from gathering the plant tastes. She stoned at his touch, just as the women had gossiped. Rocks do not conceive, they said, and truly she had not. Though she was surely able.

I greeted each in the group as I came to them, finishing with Shia, who sat alone against his rock. He was staring at the birds circling above us, reading signs for the next hunt.

"What do they tell us?" I asked Shia.

He did not turn to look at me. "Much, though they tell us only what we can understand. No more than that."

"What of Dwa, she has painted last night?" I asked, noticing his tiredness. Shia always stayed with Dwa as she painted, looking for guidance.

"She has painted yellow," he said, loud enough so that some in the group would overhear us.

Alla, the only twice-birthed in our group, walked slowly back toward the group to tell the others the good news. She had been listening to us as she mended a sling nearby. Yellow before a hunt meant good fortune. Dwa had seldom been wrong before.

Long ago, when Lasha was our spirit-guide, Dwa had only painted black. But just after Lasha failed to return from her journey, Dwa painted yellow as she saw in her dreams.

She had marked it bridging a crack on the Spirit Wall. Many had laughed at her for this, for this was a dry time, and there was no water for the horns to be found near. But she persisted, and the yellow was not covered up.

When the other hunters and I returned with three full grown horns, their bodies divided between us, the laughter grew quiet. The other women drew blue on their faces, and gave Dwa their first cut of horn, as was her right. The horns had been found as she predicted, near a small patch of water, kept shaded by large trees. Shia said we were blessed to have Lasha's power passed down to Dwa.

Since then, Dwa had painted many times, and Shia frequently kept her company when she journeyed with the seeds of life. Few visited Lasha's spot, where we had returned her body to the earth. Her spirit now moved among the birds, Shia had told me, and it was her guidance that he was seeking now as he looked skyward.

I walked back to the group as they distributed the morning food, anxious to start this day with new strength. The food given out was older, from our last gathering time, and there is no dried horn to give me strength for the next hunt. The marrowed men in the group prepared their slings for the next hunt, ignoring all else. Feen and Tarclik, the two youngest unmarrowed hunters, practiced their strikes in front of the rest of the group. Each took a turn, first loading his long, sharpened tree stinger into the sling, then hurtling it toward a skin, covering a bush. As they hit, they would walk back one fang length and begin the process again.

Tarclik claimed to be a wrong-hander, too, and tried a throw using his other hand, throwing from his water side like me. The stinger shook in the air, and glided to the earth, far from his target. The group laughed at this, and I walked over to the stinger, touching its sharp tip. My sling was not yet ready, so I picked up the stinger and threw it with my wrong-hand, as I sometimes did during a fast hunt, when there was not enough time to load the sling. The stinger whistled through the air, coming to rest inside the bush.

The group laughed and clapped, and even Schlumb laughed along with the others, happy to have a hunter such as me to extend the grasp of our Karbala, the hunting group. I smiled at the wrong-hander Bwish, but she merely looked at me, thinking of her demon songs even then.

As was my right, I told the story of the first wrong-hander to the group as they worked. Only a few turned to face me as I told the story they had heard many times before.

"During the driest time of all," I began, "our Karbala tracked a group of horns to a large lake, so deep that it could never dry up. The youngest of the starving hunters looked into the lake, though he was forbidden to do so."

Alla hugged her youngest to her as I told the story, making sure he was listening as tree-to-earth.

"The young hunter's water-brother stared up at him, and, noticing his hunger, came out of the lake to join their group. The next time the group came to some horns, their strikes did not miss as they had before. The throws of the water-brother, coming from his wrong-hand, scared the horns and they ran toward the other hunters instead of away."

Alla's youngest squirmed in her embrace, but she held him tight, forcing him to remain still.

"After many hunts, the water-brother wanted to return to the lake, but he was forbidden by the group and kept away from the lake. To spite them, he cut off his wrong-hand and buried it in the earth."

I glanced at Bwish, but she did not meet my gaze. I raised my voice and finished the story. "It was from this hand, that I and the other wrong-hands grew."

Shia spoke then, his voice a cold wind through the warmth of the young-sun. "It is good that we are blessed with your power."

He turned to face Tarclik and Feen as they jostled each other in front of the unmarrowed women. "And it is good that we practice our strikes, for we will need to throw straight if we hope to survive this dry time."

The group quieted down and all turned to look at Shia. He stood near his sitting rock, his eyes burning. Dwa was standing behind him, giving him strength. Her face had the faraway darkness of one who has just returned from a journey.

"As you have heard, Dwa has painted yellow." He let the words drift over them, searching their faces. "And just now she has returned to tell me the rest. Last night, she has covered the yellow with red."

The wind slowed. Our ancestors cried out in the silence. Dwa had painted red.

"There will be a hunt to come, but that will wait. This was found by Dwa on her return to me." Shia held up a small, carved bone in his hands, as if afraid to touch its wickedness. A lone bird called, and Shia looked up.

"Lasha is with us now," Dwa said, in her voice of dust. "She has blessed the ancestors trapped in this demon-singer, and they will soon be free. But only by tree-magic can they be released."

"We must do it now," called Alla. "We must prepare the tree to give us its magic, its heat, and its sun."

Shia held up his hand, and stood straight. "Tonight we will have the ceremony. There is much to prepare. We must leave tomorrow, to go to the north. The other groups cannot be allowed to take our land from us. This demon-singer is proof they have been invading our lands. Our ancestors will not allow their sickness to spread."

The group babbled to itself, but I could not make out their words. I looked to Bwish, but she was the stone, demons blazing at Shia through her eyes.

"The demon-singers of the north must be returned to the earth," Shia said. "I am calling for a death-hunt."

The babbling stopped, and the group drew toward itself. Alla hugged her youngest to her. Even our ancestors said nothing. Dwa had painted yellow, then red. The message was clear.

"Dwa will prepare tonight's ceremony. Each hunter must prepare himself for the coming death-hunt." Shia looked up toward the group, water growing in his eyes. "We must protect our way of life."

"Dwa is the long-tail, hiding in the trees." Bwish's words, hot and dry, came from the center of the group, fracturing it. All turned to see who had spoke.

"She chatters, but does not know what she says."

"We are forced into this," Shia said. "If a fang attacks, do you not kill it before it gets too close?"

Bwish spoke again, ignoring the looks of the rest of the group. "If you come across it when hunting, would you kill it just for thinning the horns, as the great ancestors have made it to do?"

"The demons are thick with this one," Dwa rasped.

"A fang too close is better dead." Shia thundered. "A fang would take us, just as it takes the horns. We must protect our group." Shia turned as if to leave.

"Then you call a death-hunt on the words of this long-tail. You throw your stick into the mist, and expect it to strike true." Bwish crinkled her face, as if smelling rotten meat. "You eat the plant at night, and wonder why you sicken."

Dwa began to shake as she always did when the ancestors were about to speak through her.

"You speak from your group-which-gave, the demon-singers of the north. They infect their children at a young age." Dwa turned toward Shia. "She must be purified, if this sickness will be avoided here. Already the sweet trees have turned sour."

Bwish reached in her satchel and pulled out a small, carved bone. "You call for a death-hunt over this?" her voice rose, scaring the birds. "Do you hunters want to return to the earth for this bone?"

The group moved further away from the cursed women. Some of the women in the group blessed themselves, touching their eyes for protection.

"You have sickened our group long enough." Shia said. "I should not have taken you in."

"You had no choice, old one," Bwish spat. "I am to be marrowed to your next leader, and our children shall lead your group. My father of the north has called for it, and you have agreed. That is why he allowed you to keep your group. But the northern groups have grown since then. They are seven groups now, and more are joining them at the Great Dance."

"A nest of demons," Dwa shook as she spoke. "We must free the ancestors trapped there, before they turn to demon ways too."

"Foolish woman," Bwish said. "Our ancestors are not trapped here." She tapped the small bone. "We lift them higher, as a great wind lifts the bird, up into the sky. We are bringers of joy to them, and they return to us as rain. They protect us from the dry times."

Shia banged his stick on the ground twice. "The demons give her twisted tongues. Ancestors cannot pass through bone, they must come from here." He pointed at his mouth.

"Is this not joy?" Bwish asked. She tilted her head toward the end of the small bone. Her fingers flittered over the small holes, and her ancestors flowed through the air, dancing with her bird calls. The calls rose higher, then lower, and some in the group began to sway with her songs. Many had not heard the call of the demons before, as I had. Alla's youngest smiled and looked up at the sky, searching for the lifted ancestors.

It was Schlumb who broke the demon spell. Slowly he walked over to Bwish, and with great pain on his face, he wrapped his arms around her. She stopped playing under his gentle pressure. Alla touched her youngest child, stopping her swaying.

Shia wiped his mouth, then banged his stick hard on the ground, causing a small puff of dust to rise. "We have been sickened now. Tonight's purification will free those ancestors that Bwish has trapped. You can all see how the demons trick you." Shia looked directly at Alla's youngest. "Only purification will save this group. We must purify the northern groups, or watch the land grow dead, as in the worst dry time." Shia walked off, his hands in fists. Dwa shambled after him.

Schlumb continued holding Bwish, the demon-bone lying at her feet. He was trembling, though I could not tell if it was from great anger or great sadness.

The group divided, preparing for the death-hunt. I gathered my sling and walked over to the rest of the hunters, ignoring Bwish's stare. There was much to do. Dwa had painted red.

***

We stopped for the last time just beyond the edge of the northern lands. The birds had told us a horn was near, and we thanked the fangs for their gift. There was enough left to feed us all that night, though we had much food with us for this journey. But with the fresh horn, our group became Karbala, and Shia told us we were stronger. We were Karbala, the hand that grasps with all fingers. We could not be stopped.

We had traveled for five days, and each night after Shia slept, the wind talked of many things. How would we defeat the combined strength of the north with such a small group? Most of us had not death-hunted before, and did not know how to hunt those like ourselves. A fang attacks with a fang, a horn runs swiftly. But a man is different. He strikes from all directions. We must be ready, the wind said.

That night in Karbala, after the food had been passed out, Shia spoke to us as tree-to-earth.

"I know we are small in numbers, the birds tell me this, but I see it with my own eyes as well." Shia smiled at us, on his day-face. But his night-face was not glad. "Some may wonder why we must do this, kill good men when they are not prepared to return. Why we must kill children and women too if they are sickened."

The younger hunters cried out softly but none turned to look at him. This was Karbala. All faces must be shown here. It was the time of truth.

Shia glanced at the hunters in the dim light, talking softly. There was no tree-magic, for its light and fog would give us away. We had only a piece of the small sun to give us its white light.

Shia looked toward the small sun, gathering its strength before continuing. "I will tell you a story of what Dwa had visioned on her last journey. When she visited with Lasha, and all the others trapped in the Journey world."

"Has she painted yellow?" Schlumb asked, eager for a sign of our victory.

Shia clapped his hands together twice, telling us Dwa had not painted yellow. "After she painted red, and the birds confirmed the death-hunt, we returned to the Spirit Wall. She journeyed again, and I protected her body, as always. As I should have with Lasha." He grimaced, and looked at the earth. "Dwa painted the red flowing as if a river. The red ran to a great chipped rock, and split toward the north and toward the south. The northern stream turned to a blue fang, each of its three heads biting the other. The southern stream became a black bird, feeding on a horn."

The group growled to itself. There was great death ahead of us, and after that, only one side would survive. Dwa's paintings told us what we already knew. But was it to be bird or fang? Even the ancestors could not tell us what was to happen.

"Then we must," Schlumb said, flexing his great throwing arm. "We must destroy them before they unite and destroy us. The sickness will be wiped clean, or we will be sickened ourselves."

These were not his true words, and they fell flat to the ground. Sometimes Shia tried to speak through him. But this was Karbala. Only truth was heard here.

"But what of their women?" Feen said. In the faint light I saw his young night-face. He was not yet a man. "Must we cleanse them all?"

Many others murmured their concerns, but I did not join them. I watched Shia.

"We will decide that when we must," Shia said.

Feen looked sour at his empty words. This was Karbala. Here we showed all of our face and we judged the true faces of the others. Tarclik and a few others also said nothing. They were not decided.

"How will we do it?" Schlumb asked. His eager night-face was not hard to see. It was filled with blood and boasting.

"The magic is strong that traps the ancestors," Shia said. "Only a great tree-magic can free them. So we will come upon the northern groups during their great demon clap-circle. On the last night of their celebration. We will use the tree-magic, and those that pass through the fog, and the pain, shall be purified."

Shia looked directly at Feen. "There is no other way to be sure."

Feen nodded, backing down from the Shia's gaze. He was our leader, and he had not led us wrong.

We spoke for much longer about many things, as is the custom of Karbala. When it came time to have the clap-circle, my ancestors did not wish to speak, so I merely clapped along.

The voices of the ancestors sounded dull in my ears.

***

I crept up toward the dry grass, holding the tree-magic low in my hand. There were signs of many different groups here. Some marked the trail for others of their group to follow, others had blundered through, not caring that the horn would see their signs. No horns would travel here for some time. The stench of men was overpowering.

In the distance I could see the great meeting place of the groups, the demon songs pouring out from its center. A pounding demon called out again and again, louder and faster than any clap our group had made. I tried not to step to its call, but I was carried away by its power. I stopped to listen.

The northern group were calling in the true voices of their ancestors, just as we had the night before. Their demon-birds danced around the words, and the pounding set their clap-cycle, but it was the same songs we used. But Shia had told us they had given up the true ways. He had said this in Karbala, the time of truth. The wind would have much to say the following night.

As I moved down the line of dry grass, I spread the magic as quickly as I could. There were too few of us, Shia had said, so we must not hesitate. And after three days of celebrations, even their watchmen must be sapped.

Through the growing fog brought on by the tree-magic, I saw a northerner pass into view. I put my hand on my sling and crouched low to the ground, ready for the death-hunt. But I was blessed and the face-stretcher passed by without turning, walking through a dream world of his own. How else could he have missed the fog, and the light?

I hurried away, knowing the northerner's cries would come soon. In the distance I could make out small specks of light; the magic of my brothers spreading in the grass. The thumping died down, and again I grabbed for my sling. If the groups were to see the tree-magic before it spread, they could charge through the gaps and slaughter us. But Dwa had twice blessed us, for I heard a slight patter, much too fast for clapping. Their demon songs began again.

The magic jumped from my stick now, the fog burning my eyes as I went. I again heard the call of the circlers, so I turned back out from the fog, touching spots that had not yet fully accepted the magic. A wall of lights and fog now obscured the northern groups from my view.

But that circler call was soon followed by another, the cry of a man. The northerners had finally awakened. The demon songs stopped, and I heard their footsteps, a great many, pounding on the land.

I could not see them, though I heard their strange words through the fog. Some words I did not understand, but many I could not escape. "The demons are attacking," they said to each other, over and over. "We must protect our ancestors."

Close to me, a shape passed, I grabbed my stinger, ready to attack. A cry came out, then many more. I heard the screams of men being taken by the tree-magic. Our own stingers were taking those that passed through the fog, returning them to the earth. Shia had said we were freeing their ancestors as well. But they did not sound like they were ready to be freed.

A shadow loomed on my water-side, and I raised my sling, ready to throw. He came at me through the fog, not knowing I was a water-brother and he was walking into my strength. My sting was quick and true; it flew straight into his chest.

He fell forward, and I saw yellow and then red. The red was his spirit-water, which spread on the ground beneath him. His face was the yellow, the color of my people.

I crouched over my brother's body, holding a strong hand that once I had cursed with my night-face. Schlumb did not speak as he passed on, nor did he remove his eyes from mine. He did not need to speak. He had cursed me.

As I stood up, the cries of men grew fainter in the fog. I rolled Schlumb's body into a growing nest of tree-magic, hoping the Great Tree would somehow release me from his curse.

I turned and hurried away from the northerner's circle, my sling forgotten on the ground behind me. Twice I tripped over a fallen northerner, their skin not yet blackened by the tree-magic. The wails of the fallen followed me out of the fog to a small clearing where I lay down to rest. Dwa had painted red and so it had been.

***

The land was black and barren as Shia met with the surviving members of the northern groups. The face-stretchers, always quick to change alliances, agreed to join us at once against whatever bands were left. Many bodies, blackened by the tree-magic, lay in the fields, still releasing their fog. Out of respect for their ancestors, Shia allowed some of the northern groups to return the bodies of their fallen to the earth. None of the tools of the demon-singers were present, though they were part of the ceremony for many. Shia waited until the last leader left before he spoke to us.

"Today we have done a great and terrible thing," Shia said, his eyes dancing as he spoke. His eyes did not share his feelings of dread. "No longer do they trap our ancestors."

Shia let out a cry of joy which most of the group joined. I looked at those who did not join in the cry. We were still in Karbala. We still spoke with both of our faces.

Shia looked at me and spoke. "We have lost some of our group. Though their lives will be marked and remembered for all time, it still causes us great pain."

It was true what he had said. The tree-fog had caused great confusion in the demon-singer group, but our own had become lost as well. Schlumb, Tarclik, and Nye had not returned to us. Their bodies were consumed in the tree-magic.

"But should we not find them?" Feen asked, his face smudged black. "We must return them to the earth."

"They have been taken by the Great Tree," Shia said, speaking over the young hunter. "There is no greater honor."

Feen said nothing, meeting eyes with those in the group who had not cried out in joy. The wind would have much to say tonight, after Shia had left us.

"We have freed many ancestors tonight," Shia said abruptly. "They will guide those we have lost."

A member of the northern groups, Bwish's old group, approached. He was not wearing cloth beneath his waist, a sign of submission.

"I bring the food, and ask for assistance, Great Father," the northern man cried. His eyes were red, his face rippling.

"I am no father of yours," Shia said, leaning on his stick. "I am no demon."

"Our Great Father has passed into the mist," the northern man said. "Many of our group has followed. We wish to ask for your help, to offer our women for your guidance."

Shia's eyes burned brighter now, his night-face darkening. The faraway look departed from his eyes. I wondered if he had taken the journey seed, or if he even needed to take it anymore. I wondered where he had led us.

"I accept, water-brother," Shia said. "We will talk later. For now, we must strengthen our ties. You know what I ask."

The northern man nodded slowly. "We shall not use our true ancestor -- our demon-singers. They caused us to be punished."

The night face of the man told me what his words did not. The demon tools would not be destroyed, only hidden. The jutting of his chin, much like Bwish's, told me he was angered. Would Shia accept only his pledge?

"Then we will speak later," Shia said, staring up at the sky. He walked off toward another group of northern leaders. He did not bother to speak with us again that day.

***

After many days in the north, we camped unafraid in the true light of the tree, our ancestors joining us on the journey home. Many in the group had spoke openly against Shia; unhappy that he had kept us there so long. We were still in Karbala, and it was our right to speak this way. Shia spent much of the journey alone, preparing messages for the neverending flow of face-stretcher messengers.

That night, we did not wait for the tree-magic to die down before the wind spoke. It spoke through me first. "Shia has not led us wrong through these past dry times," I said. "This was what we had been told, and what I had believed for a time."

Malki, the oldest of our group, spoke next. His voice rough from the tree-fog. "But this dry time, he has led us north, to a land of great wrong. Is this not a poor choice?"

"I felled three children," Feen mumbled. His face still black from the death-hunt. "In the fog, they were men. But when I came upon their bodies, they were children. What magic is this?"

"Shia told us; Dwa painted this," Malki warned. The other men grumbled.

"They were demons," the wind said.

"They called us demons," I said. "Their bones and thumps were the true voices of their ancestors, of our ancestors. They called as we do; they used our songs."

"Then Shia led us wrong," Malki said. Only he could say what the wind had been telling us for so long.

I spoke quickly now, with both of my faces. "No Malki, Shia has not led us wrong." The eyes of the group were on me. "Shia has slipped away, his true self trapped in the sky. It is he who is sickened by the demons. Only through this great death has he shown his sickness."

"And what of the demon-singers?" Malki said. He had picked up his sling.

"They speak with the true voice of their ancestors. We all heard their songs. They blessed this land, even as we do."

For a long time, the group said nothing. Malki put another stick into the pit.

"Then what are we to do?" Feen finally asked.

"The true Shia has not led us wrong," I said as I stood, flexing my throwing arm. "Even though he was stolen by the demons, he still has not led us wrong." I looked into the pit of tree-magic. "He has told us what needs to be done."

As we walked out toward the old man, I thought of Bwish, of her bird songs. Later I would send word with Feen, that she was to be freed. I would need my marrowed partner, if I was to reunite the northern groups. The true voices of all of our ancestors would be heard again.

I tightened my grip on my sling and walked into the bush where the old man lay sleeping. Shia had not led us wrong. The demon must be killed.


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