Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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Wintering Ground

by Damien Krsteski




I watched my father sleep. My sore eyes were on the verge of popping out, like too much air had gotten behind the eyeballs, the lids sliding down every so often before I could catch myself and shake my head, forcing both body and mind to remain awake.

I knew his turn was up. I was supposed to stir him, get a wink of rest on the cold ground myself while he kept watch, but I couldn't bring myself to drag him out from sleep and into this colorless world.

His belly quivered as he breathed.

Later, the horizon began to lighten from black to dusty gray, and he woke up.

Years of living under dead heavens had taught him to recognize daylight, poking its soiled fingers into his eyes, even in sleep. He sat up. Stared at me. “I overslept.” Smacking his lips, brushing dirt off his beard. “Why didn't you wake me up?”

My shoulders slumped as I watched smears of white appear on the horizon, a sun seething behind clouds. Another dawn, another day.

“You stupid boy.” He slapped me.

He strolled around the ashen escarpment looking for snakes to crush with his rock. I watched him dart and bring his rock down on the ground and shout in anger as creature after creature slithered away from him. Finally, he came back with a viper dangling uncoiled from his fist. We split the sinewy reptile, and I ate less than a quarter of its length.

“You won't finish this?”

I shook my head, and he took the remains, muttering around the meat how it was perfectly good food I was refusing.

Having assuaged my hunger somewhat, and having made sure that he'd eaten well, I slept for hours.


* * *

Footfalls on soft warm earth, leaving prints. The sky, white, but containing streaks of something else, of a whiteness less bland and boiling toward blue, like snow under shadow sometimes is, only brighter, more intense.

Sitting cross-legged, breathing in the clean, warm air that doesn't feel like needles pricking the chest.


* * *

He woke me up around midday. I shivered while my blood warmed up. We walked for miles across a desolate landscape (which, having known no better, was just ordinary landscape to me) until we caught up with our tribe. They welcomed us joylessly, counting the snakes in our hands.

Everyone was walking. The children played on one side and my father shoved me in their direction. “Go, play.” I went.

Despite my hatred for the game, the only one they'd ever taught us, I wrapped my torn shirt around my fist, and shivering in the cold, joined in by bashing Clomer on the head.

“Saol is here, boys,” Clomer shouted, blood oozing from his mouth, and struck me back.

Behind us, speed-walking southward with the whole tribe, I caught glimpses of my father smiling.


* * *

Winter lasts a long time, an elastic, unforgiving stretch of gray. You cannot avoid it, even less defeat it, but if you stick together, if you walk, always, constantly, to keep warm and gather food, to keep busy, then you might survive a portion of it.

That's what we did, we walked. Toward south, not because it was warmer, but because we had to pick a direction and south was as good a choice as any.


* * *

That night my father went to Clomer's mother. We were told to go play away, like always, and like always, we went but didn't play.

We sat on rocks, gloomy. Clomer talked and I didn't listen.

A while later when I saw my father's figure emerge from behind a thicket of dry brambles, I got up and walked over to the spot where we had made our bed for the night.


* * *

Breathing clean soft air. The world is a place that cannot harm me. The ash is a blanket that can be kicked away, and warmth exists beneath it, and blue exists, and green, and red, and all these colors that used to be only words.


* * *

“Butchers!”

The cry of the watchman rang in my ears. I jumped out of sleep, and so did everyone around me, the silver ferns on which we lay shaking all around us.

“Butchers,” we all repeated as our senses came back to us. “Butchers.” Pushing each other in the direction away from the cries, passing the news to those around as if they hadn't heard the shouts, repeating the two syllables that made us bristle. “Butchers.”

My father grabbed my arm and tugged. We ran, stumbling over one another, feet slipping on frozen earth. My elbow popped out of its socket. I screamed.

“Run, boy,” he hissed, and I bit my lip, stomping the ground, blinking into dead night.

Growls from behind us; their feet were clawed, making them capable of hunting on ice, and as I ran I thought of those claws, ripping into flesh, and of the Butchers' sharp canines, sinking into the nape of my neck.

“Momma,” somebody screamed, and with a chill I realized it was Gaspar, another boy we often played with. “Momma, get up.”

I glanced back.

The vicious animals were gaining on them; I couldn't see his mother from the frosted ferns, just Gaspar, bent over, trying to pull her up.

Father barked, “Look ahead.” But I was careless, my foot got stuck in a root, and I fell.

“Stupid, stupid boy.”

The animals maimed Gaspar and his mother, and were now almost upon us. Father swung me over his shoulder. He was slower, but he ran, his sharpened rock held up in his right hand.

When the Butchers reached us, he stopped. The animals encircled us, their eyes like holes in the skulls, teeth sharp and long and silvery. He lifted me over his head on a quivering arm.

“Away.” He waved the rock around. “Go away, Butchers.”

One of them pounced on him, slashing his chest, and he screamed and struck the Butcher with the rock. The animal wailed. He brandished the rock and the beast buried its claws in my father's flesh again and got struck once more, and this time the beast slumped to the ground before getting up to retreat. I watched from above, dripping tears but too shocked to let out more than a whimper. My father's hand never wavered.

The Butchers dithered for a moment, then went after the tribe. It's the chase they enjoy. They don't eat human flesh.


* * *

Father lived, but never forgave me.

“No mercy, no looking back.” He beat me over the head. “No caring for others,” he would say and lift up his shirt, his scars on display. “This could've been you.”

I could only nod, my head hung in shame. “It could've been me.” The attack left our tribe in distress; we nursed our wounds on foot, sadder than before but alert, iced blood running through our veins. Nobody talked. We remembered. Remembered the dead, and thanked the skies we weren't among them.


* * *

“Do you know what they say?” Clomer asked me one evening while our tribe was resting beside a river and my father was with his mother again. I watched the icy slush trickle slowly like fester from my father's wounds. “The Runners. What they speak of, do you know?”

“No,” I said, uninterested. The Runners were the fastest men and women of our tribe, and by extension, our leaders.

“They talk, they whisper, and Clomer listens.”

“Bugger off, Clomer.” I made fists, ready to strike back if he hits me. “Not in the mood.”

But he didn't hit me, which I found strange since we were taught to always hit one another, and Clomer was one of the boys who put that teaching into practice more often than not. He watched me watch the river for a moment, then said, “They talk of other tribes. Communicating, by leaving stuff, a trail of garbage.”

I turned to face him, my eyebrows arched.

He nodded. “Around us, wherever we go. Scraps of cloth, bits of bone, buried under trodden snow. The Runners scout out the terrain ahead, and they don't speak to others about what they find, only among themselves.”

“So? It's the splinter-tribes, the ones walking east-, or west-ward.”

He opened his eyes wide. “No, Saol,” he said. “Ain't them.” I'd never seen him so serious, speaking like that, soft-like.

“And how would they know that?”

He stuck his hand in his pocket and I flinched at the sudden movement, thinking he was about to strike me, the punchline to this stupid joke. He didn't. He pulled out a round object. “Because among the garbage and scraps and foodstuff, they find tricky things. Interesting things. And I nicked one.”

In his hand he held a pebble that shone with hot red light.


* * *

We made up many stories about the origin of the lightstone, as we called it then, foolish as we were. We said invisible tribesmen had fashioned it, lurking the dead and frozen forests, sleeping upright on tree stumps so we mistake their bodies for trunks from a distance. We said it had fallen from the sky, and pictured a whole civilization living atop the gray mass of clouds, fabricating such devices. We said many things, but for me there was one truth: I'd imagined a tribe, larger and more advanced than ours, miles ahead on the southward path, with tools far beyond our sharpened rocks and sticks. A vanguard tribe that would welcome us as long-lost siblings, teach us, help us hunt, make warmth, provide us with light from many lightstones.

We played with the stone every night we were sent out to play, tossing it from hand to hand as if a hot ember, following its glow with gleeful eyes.

During daytime I walked faster, slept less, tugging my father for the first time in our lives.

“Stupid boy,” he'd say. “You'll rip my wounds open.” But his voice was soft when he said that.


* * *

Walking to the edge of the world, looking down into a pit of red stones, rubies, crystals. Jumping.

Laughing all the way down to the pool of stones, and they turn soft, a bed of feathers breaking my fall.


* * *

We played a game where one of us buries the stone under snow and the other must retrieve it in a brief amount of time. It was a thrill to look out into darkness under a velvet dome of clouds, and to see, finally, there, right there, the pulsing light of the stone bleeding into ashen snow.

I hid the stone and Clomer found it. He hid the stone and I dug it out with bare hands, unconcerned by the sharp cold bite. We played the game well into the night.

My face was in the crook of my arm, and Clomer said, “No peeking.” I heard him walk out, trying to find a good hiding spot for the stone. I tried not to trace his footsteps in my mind, I didn't want to have an inkling of where the stone might end up, I wanted to look into dark and know nothing except that it was out there, waiting for me to unearth it.

“You.” A bark from behind me turning my blood cold as rock. I opened my eyes, but didn't turn around, expecting the worst. “You,” he repeated, and I heard heavy footfalls approaching. He grabbed me by the neck, “What are you doing? So far, so late. Didn't you see me scanning the horizon for you, waving my arms?” He was trembling. “And you,” he said when he saw Clomer further down, head bowed, hands behind his back, keeping our plaything out of my father's sight. “Go.” And Clomer ran toward the tribe and I was alone with my father. His breath evaporated in the cold air. He kept silent, his breath slowed, he calmed down.

The calloused fingers loosened their grip. “Your mother,” he said at last, “struggled with you. You wouldn't come out. A burning rock inside her, an insufferable pain. That was you. She cried and bled all night and I brought her water and food and kept her warm and let her sink her teeth into my arm so her screams don't attract the Butchers but by morning she died, with you inside. Her face was twisted from agony, unrecognizable. She died like an animal, body caked with her own scarlet blood. You tortured her from the inside and killed her, you little murderer. That was you. But do you know what I did? I forgave you. And the moment she closed her eyes and her hand let go of mine I carved you out of her with my hunting rock. I did that for you. Do you understand?”

Gray snow covered all and seemed endless.

He hissed, “Do you understand?”

I said yes but it was a lie, I was just scared.

“Look at this world.” His fingers closed around the back of my head and he jerked it left and right. “Look at it. This is no world to share with others. Not with that boy, not with the Runners, not with me, not with anyone.” He let go but I could still feel the ghostly touch of his firm hand. “You need sleep now.”

He returned back to the tribe and I followed.


* * *

My father stopped going to Clomer's mother for days and we stopped playing with the lightstone.

Clomer still sneaked out when the whole tribe slept but I didn't dare join him. I lay next to my father, curled up, picturing Clomer hunched over with the stone between his palms, warmed by its glow, and I resented him for it, felt angry, fearing that the very act of using the trinket would somehow diminish it, drain it of its color.


* * *

The next time a pack of Butchers attacked, we fared better. The cries of the watchman woke the men up before the animals had gotten near the tribe. With stones and sticks and fists they drove away the beasts, and even managed to kill one.

Fortune had smiled upon us. Butcher meat was rich, salty, less sinewy than snakeflesh. We skinned the corpse, and split it, each tearing a morsel of quickly hardening muscle until all that remained were bones and offal. Later we ate the offal, too, and sucked on the bones.

When morning came, we continued our march southward with full stomachs.


* * *

“You know, wiggly-toes,” Clomer teased, “I really don't miss stepping on snow.”

Wrapped in gleaming snakeskin, he brandished his feet before him as if walking on air. I ignored his jab but couldn't help looking down at my purple toes sticking out of worn-out wrappings. We sat on rocks away from the tribe, away from my father and his mother.

“I thought I would but don't.” He put one leg on his knee, like some adults did sometimes, and massaged his foot through the thick skin. He sighed ostentatiously, “Soft but impenetrable.”

“Are we going to play with the stone?”

He eyed me, foot clamped in his hands. “Maybe later,” he said. Then, “Your Daddy is quite the cobbler, wiggly-toes.”

I wanted to go back to our tribe but knew what awaited me there. Self-conscious, I made an effort not to move my toes despite the frost nibbling at them incessantly. “If we don't play I'd rather we don't speak either.”

“You know why he made these for me?”

“I'd rather--”

“Because my mother told him to.” His poisonous eyes studied me. “Make new shoes for my boy or we won't share a night again, is what she told him, I overheard.”

“Shut it.”

“Why doesn't he make shoes for you, Saol?” Turning aside to stare into the black horizon, “Why doesn't he?” He didn't say another word for the remainder of the night.

Some time later I saw my father in the distance, ambling toward our sleeping spot, but despite the deathly cold of the rock on which I sat I did not want to move in the slightest.


* * *

Winter is harshest right before it ends. That's what he'd taught me, that's what his father had taught him. And that's when he died. He came back from a stake out one day and stumbled on the hard ground, clutching his chest.

I cradled him in my arms, dripping tears all over his grimy clothes. He looked at me with diamond eyes, shades of ash flickering in them. I wailed; tribespeople encircled us.

My father's craggy face showed anguish, and just before closing those bright eyes for the last time, he creased his features, and with his last breath said my name, softly, painfully.


* * *

We buried him and moved on. It was a quick affair. By the time we made ten paces, I could no longer see through the thick blizzard the mound of snow under which he lay.


* * *

Ash above, ash below. The bed of feathers is now cold hard stone. Father sits beside me, gazing into the darkness. His breathing is loud and labored. I try to look into his face but cannot, his head jerks away, and all I see is thick black hair.

I plead for him to look at me. He squeezes my hand, and vanishes. Loud breathing continues, but it's me breathing in his stead.


* * *

I woke up, crystals of ice on my cheeks.

Everybody slept soundly. Through the semi-circular entrance of the cave I could see the long blizzard had subsided, only flocculent snow drifting gently down. A watchman crouched there, facing the night. I grimaced at the slumbering tribe, moving my facial muscles to warm up my numb face.

My hand hurt as if frostbitten but when I looked down I saw I was clutching my father's sharpened rock. I let go and sudden physical relief turned into agonizing emptiness.

Russet-colored blood stained the rock's edges. I grabbed it again, got to my feet. Scanned the ground for Clomer.

He slept near the wall, under a ceiling of stalactites. Slowly, I made my way to him. His mother slept curled, her long mud-caked hair tucked under her head as pillow.

I stood transfixed, watching her body, the grimy toes protruding out of snakeskin wraps, dappled legs with bruised knees and muscular thighs going up a thick skirt fashioned out of dry fern fronds.

Glancing at the watchman, then back at the sighing body,I knelt. A foul sticky odor emanated from her. I raised my father's rock above her head, slowly swung it up and down tracing an arc. Again, at the watchman. Raising the rock high up, biting my lip, hand trembling. I set the rock down on the cave floor. I went to Clomer and shook him awake.

“I need to see it,” I said.

"Go away, Saol.”

I shook him again. “Give me the lightstone.”

This time he got up. “Let me sleep. Go away.”

“I won't. Now give.”

“I don't have it.”

“You do.”

"I lost the stone, Saol.”

"Liar.”

"When your father died. Must've slipped through a hole in my pocket.”

“That's not true.”

“The blizzard was strong. It was much later that I noticed.”

“Don't lie to me.” I backhanded him across the face. I made fists.

“Give the stone.” I hit him. He cried out. I pummeled him in the belly, over the head, in the face, until strong hands took hold of me and pulled me back.

I was swinging in the air, shouting for the stone, as they dragged me away.


* * *

I walked a quarter mile behind my tribe. That was my punishment, my lesson, a sort of ostracizing. And if Butchers attacked us from behind, as they tended to do, and maimed me, then so be it, I had deserved it. I didn't protest the Runners' verdict.

I trundled across the desolate landscape, the figures of my tribespeople gauzy shadows against a gray backdrop. I followed Clomer's every movement on the jagged horizon whenever I could differentiate him from the others, to catch a wink of ruby red coming from his direction, see when he uses the stone again, that treacherous bastard. But he never did.

I passed my days thinking about my father's past and my own future, the future my father won't get to see, our deliverance. Shifting my perspective, I pictured myself at the front of my old tribe, and watching those figures ahead, I imagined them being that vanguard tribe from my daydreams, our lost brothers and sisters, and my legs no longer shook or buckled, and I marched on.

The sky looked like cinders had been crushed into cream and smeared over it.

What had made my father walk? What had given him strength to march on boldly toward an impersonal future, my weight on his back, without faltering or a trace of hesitation? I liked to think that as callous as he was, inside, his world was a colorful one, full of imagined living things, and beautifully warm places. Brimming with memory of the woman I'd never gotten to meet, the one who had died to bring me to life, the one he'd mentioned only once. I liked to think he had hope for himself; that he'd dreamed, much like I did, of places where the sky wasn't ash nor the ground dirt.

But now I know I was naive for thinking that, because all my father's generation had was the drive, the imperative to make their children resilient, so we would pass those traits on to our children, and they to theirs, and several generations could cling on to dear life and endure Winter, skies willing.


* * *

The landscape around me seemed to be altering: still cold as ever but the ground was different. The uniform white blanket became a patchwork, spots of brown earth among glittering snow.


* * *

The figures like notches on the horizon stopped. I stopped too; I was to keep my distance at all times, at least until they'd deemed the moment had come for me to rejoin the tribe.

I looked up at the clouds: the patch of light gray hadn't slipped toward the darker west. Too early for rest. Why did they stop? I observed them milling about, examining the surroundings. The Runners split off from the rest of the tribe and crouched around a tall dead tree, its gnarled branches shuddering in the breeze. I sat down on cracked earth where there was no snow, and watched, curious.

The Runners were deliberating. They were the well-built ones, easy to differentiate even at a distance. They brandished their arms, pointing at the ground, at the sky. They looked like dead trees themselves, branches shaken by winds. One of them bent over, bowing, and another pulled him up and shoved him to the ground before the others could hold him back.

They didn't linger much after this outburst of violence. The Runners blended in with the others, and soon the whole tribe was on its way again. I got up and followed as if tugged, an animal tamed and dragged by an invisible leash.

Curious, I wanted to walk faster but the pace of the tribe ahead didn't allow it. The tree grew before me, its many limbs capped with snow and bearded with icicles. At first glance, nothing seemed different about it—like many of its sort, its corpse stuck out throughout the centuries of Winter, embalmed in a frosty glaze, a mausoleum for resilient avian creatures to rest on, away from their slithering predators—but my eyes scanned the trunk, the branches, and the ground where that one Runner had bowed.

Poking through a patch of snow, pale red with a dark green neck. First, I thought it was a lightstone, or other such crafted gem, and my heart leaped because I knew we were nearing the vanguard tribe, but then I discovered it was soft to the touch, brittle, unlike a stone, and I realized with shock that I was caressing the soft and colorful parts of a plant, one so unlike the ferns and creepers I knew all too well that it didn't deserve the same cruel descriptor. This was something altogether different, worthy of a new name. A flower.


* * *

The tribe walked on as if nothing had happened, but I knew it was one of those moments when we all pretended, like after a good person's death when nobody cried or mentioned them, maybe only in jest, saying, I pity the Butchers' claws, he was rotten to the bone, and things like that just to pretend how little they had been altered inside.

The world changed and people went out of their way not to notice. I saw it in the manner of their movement, walking in groups instead of as a whole tribe, angry, or possibly even scared.

* * *

Back inside the cave, ice cold, the roof of the cave's mouth riddled with gray daggers, the stalactites. Rock in hand, above her head. No dithering, a quick strike, smashing the nape of her neck, the crown of her head, her face. No screaming, no noise.

Back inside the cave.


* * *

Cold rain fell in heavy drops. A diaphanous sheet strung between me and everything around. I could barely see my tribe. The rock-hard earth softened, turning to icy mud, requiring an effort to traverse.

It was raining since morning, battering the ground, making the mud look as if boiling. A strong wind buffeted my torn clothes but I pressed on, the rain whipping hard against my body. The shadows guttering in the distance, my tribespeople, pushed on forward as well.

My fear of Butchers abated, but I worried about water snakes or reptiles who slithered in mud, too fast for the eye to see, a quick wiggle on the ground, recognized only by the serpentine trails they left, briefly, before rain and wind turned those to slush.

Toward midafternoon the rain thinned out, a drizzle, and a cottony mist lifted off the ground. The tribe walked ahead of me, hunched forward; I noticed I'd inadvertently gotten closer to them so I slowed my pace to regain distance.

My eyes swept the slippery ground. As I walked, a bobbing figure stretched out from my feet. Somber and growing, taking on a human semblance, I realized it was my shadow coasting on the ground like a giant creature emerging from the depths of the earth. Stretching up and out. In the blink of an eye, the shadow became silhouetted in gold. My neck prickled.

A golden shaft lanced the earth right where I stood, fanning out in all directions. I cried out. Up above, a fiery tear in the cloudscape from which this golden warmth poured down.

Distant cries came from the tribe. The light drove away the mist. I realized I'd fallen to the ground, watching mesmerized as the sun's light picked out the contours of the clouds, fiery red and dark purple, burning them apart.

>The wind picked up again, blowing the drizzle sideways. Sunlight caught the rain and we saw every color at once.


* * *

The sun dropped westward—it touched the horizon, turning the partly-clouded sky into a patchy canopy of amber above our heads, then dipped and vanished.

I was crying. Because the gift of sunshine was no longer there, my father was no longer there, because the two had never met, and I was crying for the poor woman who'd carried me inside her, for all other tribesmen and women whose legs couldn't carry them so far south to see this splendid display of light, and I knew my father would disapprove and that made me bawl even harder, pitying him and pitying myself, while the corner of the world where the sun had been moments before turned to indigo.

A hand touched my shoulder. “Saol,” Tenet, one of the Runners, said in a soft voice. “You can come with us now.”


* * *

We walked across mudflats, battered by tepid rain, then dried out by intermittent sunlight. Tossed about by the elements, albeit in a manner which we didn't find so displeasing.

At times, strong gales pulled blankets of white wool over our heads, and we turned quiet, fearing that our luck had run out, but always the fierce sun returned, cleaving the cloudscape with both hands like a man digging through flesh for his unborn son.

The first days of walking with the tribe felt strange—nobody spoke to me, and I didn't try to stir a conversation with anyone. Flinching whenever somebody accidentally bumped into me, ostracized but among people. I disliked the noises they made, the loud quarrels, the crying of the children, sounds of many feet stomping as if they all were collectively defying nature with their raucousness. I was afraid of consequences.

Clomer and his mother walked huddled together, always, and I made sure I stayed as far away from them as possible.


* * *

Back inside the cave. Body seething with rage which evaporates once the deed is done. First her, then her boy. No tribesman to stop me.


* * *

The ground we walked on was flatter, the terrain no longer composed entirely of escarpments and jutting rocks. Low hills of mud turned to meadows carpeted by grass pale and rare like the hair on old Oker's head. Those red poppies became more common, growing among grass patches, opening their petals to a world with a sun.

Charred trees fell down and rotted, saplings emerging in their place. Our pace slackened, we were learning to enjoy the rebirth of the world.


* * *

The warmer weather had another effect on the tribe. Men and women began to mingle, baring teeth at one another and conversing lasciviously throughout the day, scuttling away from the pack come nighttime.

I could hear the moaning and panting while I lay blinking at the stars, wondering why anybody would want to bring a person to this world willingly. What if Winter came back stronger than ever? Who will feed those people and protect them from the elements? Do they deserve to go through it all, both children and parents? Too selfish, I decided. All of them, too selfish.

I shut my eyes but images of men thrusting their bodies against willing spread-eagled women floated before me like specters of the faraway moans of pain and pleasure, of women, heads thrown back and mouths wide open, digging their fingers into the ground, of men pulling at their hair while the fingers of the women closed on lumps of earth and fresh grass, swaying, their backs and bottoms hollowing out the moist wormy ground in their entrancement to carve out a bed and grave for themselves and their future children.

Hot anger stirred in me. Anger and something else entirely. I opened my eyes again at the inky sky and wished for a cold wind.


* * *

In the span of ten days, the winds lost their bite. Our clothes fashioned out of animal pelt began to stink up under the sun's heat and the moisture in the air, so we shed them, a trail of dried skin behind us like browned fruit rind.

The new garments were made out of plant leaves, weaved through with strong vegetable fiber.

I caught murmurs as we walked, quips and brief mentions of the New Spring, this new beginning gifted to us, and people asking one another what it is we were to do now the world has changed so much.


* * *
From the lip of the valley we could see it was carpeted with gems, gleaming like tearful eyes. I knew what they were, and yet was the least bit surprised at the sight.

Due to our slow strides that day we had arrived just as dusk had crept over a cloudless sky and stars had begun popping up in twos or threes. The gems scattered in the low grass made it seem as if we were staring at a still lake, mirroring the heavens. As above so below.

We didn't speak until night covered all; then we made bags and robbed the valley of its gems and were on our way come morning.


* * *

Back inside the cave.

Hands stained with her blood, with her boy's blood, and I bring them up to my face, pressing them hard against my cheeks, making bloody hand prints. In a slab of ice I catch my reflection: I am red, glowing like a lightstone.

They come alive; I kill them over and over again.


* * *

Much as the thawed out roots had stirred in the earth to sprout saplings, memories grew in us with each step as if emanating from the warm ground, branching through our bodies, their fruit ripening in our minds.

We tasted what had been; instincts woke within us, calling forth our ancestors from long before Wintertime, and they spoke to us of their ancestors and their tribulations, of their shaping of Shapes and the cyclical nature of Nature.

“They are tools,” Tenet told us one evening when we rested, holding one lightstone between thumb and forefinger. “Precisely crafted.” He swept his hand in a semi-circle so all gathered could see the stone, and a murmur passed through the tribe.

From a pocket he produced another stone. One in each hand, he aligned them as he saw fit, then brought them together before our eyes. The two gems melded seamlessly, their glow dulling from red to pale cerise.

“We don't see it as a miracle,” he said, “because we have done this before. We know it already.”

People were nodding, exchanging glances infused with meaning. From the side I was nodding, too, though my gaze shifted to the far off meadows. Tenet's words rang true and with each passing moment of recollection I could see the vanguard tribe, those distant saviors from my imagination, slip further away toward the horizon until they had rounded the globe and become us, our civilization from the past.


* * *

We no longer thought of ourselves as a tribe, but a group of individuals traveling together, a society on the move, though when that change occurred I couldn't tell.

We picked gems off the ground like overripe apricots as we walked, collected them in bags draped over our shoulders and rattling with our loot.

It was in our blood, we had practiced the art of cajoling life from shapes ages ago, and we were practicing it now as if the intermediary slight of Nature had never been and we hadn't lost an eye blink. We practiced when we rested. We played and learned the craft anew.

Light spilled like milk between my fingers while I worked the gems, melding shapes together into trinkets that became medical utensils, crafting tools or fishing rods, playthings.

I marveled at the shape before disassembling it to its constituent gems. In these moments an urge would materialize to speak to Clomer about our nights spent playing ignorantly with the lightstone, but my father's voice would remind me in dreams that the world wasn't for sharing, and I'd remember everything, and anger would overwhelm me. So he was always there with his mother and the tribe. And I was always here, apart.


* * *

Back inside the cave, their heads a thick paste of crushed bone and brains, my face smeared with their blood. A hammer made out of gems in my hand.

Good.

They don't deserve to be alive, to breathe the spring air, drink fresh water, while he rots somewhere north, never having even dreamed of this present, back inside all those caves.


* * *

“Butcher!”

We sprang up, poised to run, but the poor creature merely stumbled toward us, and we watched it limp lamely, grunt, slump to the ground. We stared at the body until its heavy breathing slowed, stopped altogether, then we broke into a cheer.

Their thick fur wasn't made for hot weather. Butchers were dying out.


* * *

“This is the perfect place,” Tenet said, his arms spread wide, framing the dell beneath a gentle hill dotted with oaks. A gurgling brook ran down the hill, splitting the valley in two even halves. “We have come south enough, it is time to rest.”

“The sun's gone to your head, Runner,” Oker said. Some laughed.

“Yes it has, old friend.” He walked over to the brook and splashed his face. Minnows raced around his cupped hands.

“We can't stay, we've never stayed anywhere.”

“The world changed,” he said, “so should we.”

“You can't be serious.”

He straightened up, beads of water in his beard. He said, “We can build a village and explore the surroundings from here. We have walked far, our legs are buckling; everything we've built we've had to dismantle. Don't you want a home? Let's make one together, we have the tools--” pointing at the heaped sacs of gems, then at the oak grove “--and the materials for it.”

But not everyone was convinced; some argued we would stumble further south upon better locations, or the ruins of our former civilization which we could scavenge and build on top of, this was too soon to stop, especially now the weather had become so auspicious.

“Any ruins that might have been are dust now, Nature has seen to that. We can walk four hundred years more and never decide on a spot. I say this place is good enough.”

A wave of agreement swept the crowd, and pugnacious protestations rose to counter it. Tenet studied us through slitted eyes. After a moment he said, “If I can't convince you all, then numbers ought to settle this.”

We rested, and mulled things over for several hours. When the sky darkened, Tenet once again addressed us.

“Who stays?” And he raised his hand.

Like young flowers poking through softened soil hands went up one by one. Among them, the two I despised most.

“All right,” he said, putting his hand down. “Now, who leaves?”

Other hands rose above the heads of the crowd. Tenet counted, his tongue licking his teeth. He smiled, said, “It is decided then,” and went to bathe in the brook.


* * *

At first I thought of stuffing my pockets with lightstones and setting off, picking berries and drinking from brooks before building a cottage for myself far from the others, or perhaps carrying on to find and join one of the splinter-tribes, but studying the tightrope horizon I knew I couldn't walk it alone, with nobody to hold my hand and remind me of what's what. I had never done it, never let my tribe out of sight.

So I stayed, and helped build a village.


* * *

Hovels sprouted from the ground and trails in grass turned to roads as we repurposed Nature to fit our needs. We built a water tower with reserves to last us a month, barns to store grain and dried fruit we picked off from nearby orchards, a tank adjacent to the brook serving as a fish farm for carp and freshwater salmon.

I must admit my reluctance abated somewhat when my body was busy with construction work, and I slept soundly at night, and dreamed of nothing. But I never worked with others—even building in teams lending a helping hand felt provisional, almost spiteful in a sense. They pushed me away, but I was better than them, I'd help, and work for them.


* * *

The day was done and I was walking back from the forest, a sackful of apples slung over my shoulder. My eyes were tired and sore, and I didn't notice the two shadows on the road until I had walked up right behind them.

They turned and froze, Clomer's mother twice my height, standing beside him like a protective obelisk, her stance communicating a readiness to go to any length for her child. She placed her hand on his back, leaned slightly forward but said nothing. In her other hand, sprigs of parsley, mint, and basil for the workers' evening stew. She stared at me wide-eyed.

A warm breeze picked up, swayed the tree boughs and ruffled the grass. The apples weighed on my back so I shifted the sack to the other shoulder.

A strange sudden absence formed inside of me, an iceberg melting without warning into the sea, as I finally felt I understood what had driven her all along, what had woken her up every cold morning, had marched her through sleet and hail—so we stood transfixed in unexpected mutual comprehension while the hateful expressions peeled off our faces in the space of a few breaths and all that remained were the scars of our empathy.

She pursed her lips before giving me a nod, then they continued toward the settlement, her arm draped over her son's shoulders, two figures ambling along a snaking road.

When they dropped out of sight I looked up, searching for comfort, another pair of eyes looking down at me, perhaps, but the glow from the village cast an amber pall over the sky, washing away the twinkle of the stars.

THE END


2017 Damien Krsteski

Bio: Mr. Damien Krsteski writes science fiction and develops software. Some of his stories have appeared in Metaphorosis, Flapperhouse, NewMyths, Future Fire, Devilfish Review, and others.

E-mail: Damien Krsteski

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