By F.C. Stanley
In all the years of his marriage to her, Nomakawe had only set foot in his wife’s village twice—first to marry her, and then to bury her father. She had made many visits back to her homeland—at least once every few years. Nomakawe had no one left to visit. All his family was around him, and each year time wore more of them away. With time he had found himself forgetting some he had known. Friends, lovers, family, and enemies all washed away in a haze of memory, nothing left of them but the mists of vaguely remembered faces in his mind. Perhaps it was meant to be this way, he had often thought. Then again, he had little choice in the matter.
A leanness had set into the land, washed in destruction by the conflict. The earth had hardened itself against the blows struck by its sons, and it gave only the sparsest of life back for the bloods that watered it. Fire had been the embellishment of the lands and it decorated all the people’s holdings, leaving not but a few whose will withstood even the forces of cycle and decay.
Amongst those of unyielding resistance to the decay was his family-by-law’s hut. Standing aside from the rest of the village’s homes (as befitted the medicine man) and bigger than last he remembered, the red clay walls were still intact and adorned by the varied designs of the spiritual realm: the horned god, the hands of time, the wheel of life and death. The images threw themselves at the beholder and stirred something deep within the conscience of the man who feared for the afterlife. Little wonder then that Nomakawe had always seen them as showman’s trickery.
A rap on the large wooden door produced no response. After a lengthy wait, Nomakawe went around the structure, circling the hut with no little amusement at how the designs on the wall faded drastically once away from the front. The back was nothing but red clay, patched in places by the more common black under-soil of these parts of the land. A skeletal figure hunched over a fire behind the hut, blowing at the moist and stubborn twigs. Nomakawe watched the futility for a while before the figure spoke.
“The proper thing to do would be to help an old man light his fire.”
The voice was raspy and thin, but compelling.
“The fire god himself would struggle to light that,” Nomakawe responded.
“Then he wouldn’t be much of a god, would he? A fire god, you say. Is he one of those new deities that everyone worships these days? They have a god for everything. A god of shit—now that would be one fitting for this land.” The old man chuckled as he rose to face Nomakawe.
Despite the thinning wisps of grey hair on his head, barely a wrinkle had etched itself on his face. Instead, all the age seemed to have concentrated itself around the man’s neck and chest, whose skin sagged like running mud. The tattoos on his torso were indistinguishable now, one large blotch of ox-blood red, blue and black ink. He drew his breath in sharply as he laid eyes on Nomakawe.
“As fresh in the face as when you took my sister. My father had the truth of it.”
“How is it that your father came upon this truth?”
“After,” the old man replied. “First, I need real firewood if we are to sup tonight. Come.”
The sun was close to setting by the time they returned from the forest, each man carrying a bundle of dried saplings and twigs and small logs. The old man, Riseko, carried nearly the same amount as Nomakawe did, straight-backed and with no struggle. The fire lit easily after that, and the vegetable broth was soon at a furiously bubbling simmer. It tasted of spice and wheat-meal and even with no meat, it made a hearty enough dinner. They ate in beside the fire in silence, only the cracking twigs and smouldering embers between them.
“You asked how my father knew the truth about you,” Riseko spoke, in between slurps. “What he knew, and what he taught me, were the tales of lore—tales that spoke of gods who walk this land as men for as long as they will it. To them—to you—time is as nothing. He told this as tales to my brothers and sisters, but to me, he imparted them as arcane knowledge. I thought it all a myth until I saw you for the first time and again today; even for one as accustomed to the ways of the spirit world as I, some legends seem as nought but children’s yarns. When you came to us after the Second War of the Sons, my father pointed you out to me as the one spoken of in the legends. Yet still I did not believe.”
“My own father told me what little he knew,” Nomakawe said. “He said that only one of us could ever walk this land, that when we sired a son, he would carry the blood until his own son. I have married more women than I can count, and even bedded countless whores and camp followers. Those who took with child always gave me daughters. Your sister gave me joy for a time, and I had no greater wish than to die with her when my time came. Nothing came of that. Why is it that, no matter my will, no male sire comes from my seed?”
Riseko was silent for a moment, a slight frown on his face. He leaned against the wall of his hut, and looked straight into Nomakawe’s eyes.
“Because you do not will it—not truly,” he said. “You have seen twenty lifetimes or more, and though you believe yourself ready for the next life, I do not believe it is what you seek.”
“I seek it as a man of parched throat seeks a spring,” Nomakawe responded. “I have seen bloodshed, prosperity, scores of kings and even greater scores of usurpers. I have been drawn, lashed, speared, burnt, and drowned. What reason could I hold for wanting anymore of this world? I wanted nothing more than to be lain to the ground with your sister. After all these years, could not have at least that?” Nomakawe felt a light throbbing as he spoke, and his head grew light with weariness.
“That, I could not tell you. Come inside now, you seem tired.”
They retreated into the hut, and a grey haze quickly set upon Nomakawe. He collapsed onto a sleeping skin, and drowned into formless sleep. When he awoke in the middle of the night, he was at first unsure of where the dream had ended. A low, rumbling voice came from across the hut, steeped in the shadow created by a burning lamp, muttering what sounded as incantations. Nomakawe tried to turn to the source of the sound, but found his body would not move. He tried calling for Riseko, but all he could manage was a slurred word, akin to child learning speech. The muttering stopped, and Riseko walked over to Nomakawe and stood above him, lamp in hand. The medicine man had changed into his ceremonial garb, a leopard-print loincloth, tied by a snakeskin belt. A headdress adorned the bald head, its moonstones gleaming in the light of the lamp.
“You have awoken. The poison must have lost some of its potency. No matter, I have time enough.”
Nomakawe struggled to speak, but all he could do was widen his eyes. The old man laughed.
“It is no use, monster. The time has come for you to be like all men. Tell me, how many ages have you lived? How many lives have you taken? How many wives have you widowed? You are just as all gods are: selfish and unthinking. My father told me that it was our duty to serve those of your kind. But I serve no monsters. You took my sister and her years. You deprived her of the joy of growing old with one she loved. How many farmer’s and miller’s daughters have you done the same to? Can you even still recall them all? They are but playthings to you, and you lie to yourself when you say you wish to die. You would live a hundred thousand years if you could, killing this land as you have. You well might, but you will bleed this world no longer.”
Riseko walked away, and Nomakawe heard the clinking of metal being dragged across the ground. The old man bound Nomakawe in rusted chains, and clasped the links together with an iron padlock. Riseko hoisted Nomakawe over his shoulders, grabbed a pick shovel in one hand, and walked out of the hut and into the forest, muttering under his breath. Nomakawe’s heart raced, and his stomach tightened, as he felt fear that he had long forgotten. When finally Riseko set him down, all Nomakawe could make out were a few stars that peeked through the dense leaves overhead.
Riseko began digging, the dust flaring up, as he struck deeper into the ground. Nomakawe still could not move, and his tongue was heavy in his mouth. Soon, only the tips of Riseko’s headdress remained visible. The old man himself emerged from the hole, sweat streaming down his face and onto the wrinkled chest. He rolled Nomakawe into the hole,
“Lasero, mirato se. Lasero mirara se. Laso, ga mase, amata ke, lasero ginamasa,” Riseko intoned in the Old Tongue.
“Let this be your grave, demon. Let the darkness of the earth swallow you and your evils, from now until the death of the sun.”
Nomakawe closed his eyes as Riseko began to shovel the dirt into the hole in the ground. He knew, keenly, that this was to be his end. Calmness began to settle within him, and he ceased to struggle to move or even to speak. Fitting, he thought. A thousand years could not make it hidden, that his very breath was an impertinence against the forces of life and death. He had become a master of futility, he knew, labouring on in vanity. As the soil settled in around him, he recognised his times as what they had been, and himself for what he was: always immortal, never alive.
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