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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter 3 - Yat's Dream


He was awakened at dawn by rough hands prodding him out of sleep. Dreams fled him even as he rolled over, screwing his fingers into his eyes, and yet he recalled a fleeting part of them; fire, hot coals, a figure leaping, horns, dark horns growing out of its head. The figure was black like night, but marked with colours, the colours of Yat's fire. The colours coiled and spilled over the figure like the coils of snakes. The figure was ringed with fire. The fire wreathed about the figure even as many hands reached to take hold of it. The hands had no arms, no bodies. The hands had too many fingers.

He scrambled to his feet and felt the sharp pain of blisters, some bursting under the impact of his weight, and he had to clamp his lips tight in order to prevent a shout of agony.

Through the curling wisps of haze that hung over the low lands, he led the others; hobbling in a kind of mock dance caused by the unbroken swellings and the bleeding cracks of those now open and weeping. The men followed him, bearing pointed shafts and hand axes, and staring fixedly at the figure of the child as if he were some kind of wild creature never before encountered. Indeed there were those amongst them who felt the hunter's urge to pursue and bring down the catch, but Banji held them in check, fighting against his own primitive instincts. When they came out of the screening canopy into the pink dawn of the higher slopes the party of men halted, breath frosting on the morning air. Before them, Yat stood, swaying slightly, his arms extended. Beyond him lay the black, shadowed entrance, bitten out it seemed to them, by some monstrous, unknown animal. For a time all remained still, until the sounds of the forest stirred the men from immobility. Watchfully, they crossed the open space, and so came to the threshold of the great cave.

On the following day The Tribe was moved to settle at Yat's cave. Banji and the other leaders explored the interior, emerging awed by what they found. The Tribe, numbering something over thirty adults and a score of children, ranging from infants to adolescents, were given the margins close within the opening, and only the leaders and wise were permitted to venture further in. Cooking fires were established on the sites of the old, long abandoned ones. Water was discovered, running down the cliffs upon the far side, and later a deep pool, fed from cracks in the stone was found deep within the caverns. During the nights of those first days of occupation, The Tribe feasted upon a collection of cave dwellers: bats, snakes, birds and monitors. Well fed, they lounged about their fires; looking out at the stars winking overhead and on across lands unexplored.

On the fifth night, several of the children, Yat's age and younger, aped him; clumping between the adults and the fires, hissing and screeching, flapping their arms and lifting their legs to stamp the hard ground. At first many of The Tribe found this amusing; waving their hands and laughing: the laughter at that time was mostly akin to sniggering and concerned with the misfortune of others, but it could also be provoked into an uncontrollable response bordering upon hysteria and convulsion. Laughter then was not so far removed from the masks of fury and rebuttal used to intimidate enemies.

On that particular night however, Banji brought the rising tide of tension to a sudden halt. Leaving his resting-place beside a pile of firewood, he stepped into the centre of The Tribe's attentions, sending the children fleeing back to their mothers. Satisfied at gaining their eyes, he began to move: awkwardly at first, though swiftly gaining in confidence. Soon the last vestiges of embarrassed laughter fell away to be replaced by serious interest. Banji was not mocking Yat. Banji was paying him homage, giving credit for the benefit to The Tribe. And so Banji emulated Yat's performance as best he could, and in that emulation lay the embodiment of a ritual that was to be repeated by other peoples and in other days over thousands of years to follow. For these folk, The Dance had begun in earnest.

Yat, ignoring the throbbing agony in his bloated feet, was secretly pleased. Banji had at one stroke elevated him to a status higher by far than any of the tribal youngsters, and he determined, no matter what the pain, to bear himself in a manner fitting and to retain the respect that he guessed was now his due. Hobbling from the shadows, Yat emerged, exaggerating his limping gait by bending his knees and turning in his feet as much as possible to avoid the pain of walking upright.

Banji, observing his approach, was placed in the position of accepting him before the people or dismissing him as he would with any other youngster stupid enough to venture forth in such a manner. For this time however he considered it best that Yat be allowed to play his part, all the better for him to exit graciously, for suddenly Banji began to feel uneasy and slightly foolish. And here was the chance to transfer that foolishness to the child and withdraw in some dignity. So, as Yat arrived, Banji, Tribal-leader, departed to take his place in aloof silence.

Seeing this, in his turn, Yat was obligated; for to run, or at least hobble away, would be to lose all he believed he had gained. Working only on the basis of instinct, he wondered, as he drew closer to the wavering flames what more he could do to impress the adults. For he realised too late that he had been given the stage to bring scorn upon himself or to make something happen that would save face. He did not have another secret, or anything else that might surprise or even please them. He had only his blistered feet, his cunning, and too many fingers and toes. And his dream, faint now as it was, of the night before.

On impulse, he turned to stare into the fire, offering his naked back to the onlookers, but holding them with the murmur of sound from his lips. Painfully, he knelt in front of the rising flames, his hands seeking amongst the ashes wherein lay a part of his dream.

What the Tribe saw when Yat arose to circle the fire so that it blazed between them was a vision of someone they did not know. This was not a man cloaked in animal skin to recall the hunt of the day or of the past. This was not a child of The Tribe. This was a face and a body, dark and daubed with grey and white ash that hovered beyond the flames, crying out, posturing with out-bent knees. The redness of the fire and the writhing of smoke seemed to enshroud Yat's figure. Heat haze shimmered about him, giving his form an unstable, liquid appearance. The sounds that issued from his throat filled The Tribe with many emotions: fear, aggression, the urge to run, to hide, to defecate, to shout with him and beat the earth with their feet. Herd-like, some were indeed moved to raise a sound which others took up; a growing hoot that wavered with the fire, and with Yat. Yat, the boy behind the image, was filled with exultation, and as he stumbled and dipped, the flames between them and he, he saw his power as so many sparks showering upwards.

He continued for a very long time, reaching what might be called a catatonic trance that held him upright whilst his voice diminished to little more than a croak and his movements to nothing more than languid gestures. In truth he should have collapsed but for the blazing power of the flames that swelled and burst upon his eyeballs, holding him mesmerised, as he in turn so held The Tribe. It was as if he could not fall down, as if invisible forces pushed him back and forth between them so that he was constrained upright within a vertical tube of pure energy.

Only when the fire itself lowered, did Yat feel the tiredness seeping into his body. His last fading memory was that of kneeling before the glowing bed of coals, beyond which were the still dark forms of the people; though if they watched or slept he never knew.

When he awoke he found himself still upon his knees, bent double so that his face rested in the grey ash; stark grey ash that smelt of dead fire and was coloured by the first sombre traces of dawn. He was stiff with cold, and for a little while could not recall the events of the past night. When they did recur to him he was momentarily panic-stricken; had he placed himself beyond The Tribe? Would they, in the light of day, shun him or even cast him out in fear of his madness?

He lifted his head to stare across the camp. The huddled forms of people, some wrapped in hides, littered the space near the cave opening. None stirred, although he had a strong feeling that some were awake, waiting for him to move. Awkwardly he climbed to his feet, aware of the sweat-smeared ash over his chest and arms, and the sharp need to urinate. With as much dignity as he could muster, Yat limped away toward the faint sound of running water Behind, he heard the cry of a baby, but he did not look back.

When he reached the fall, out of sight of the camp, he relieved himself, drank and then splashed water over his face and body. It was cold but invigorating, and shocked him out of lethargy. Sitting on a flat stone overhanging the fall he dangled his feet into the wash. Most of the worst blisters were broken and the process of healing had begun, and though the water stung at first, eventually it soothed. For a time, whilst the sun rose into a cloudless brilliant blue, Yat remained motionless, watching the clear liquid surging about his strange toes and listening to the drone and burble that it made on its progression to the rocks far below.

Eventually hunger stirred him, and after another long drink he wandered away in search of food. He found little; lizards darted off into cracks in the stone, birds took flight, vegetation was sparse and mostly inedible and insects few. So, returning to the campsite uncertain of what to expect, he saw that all appeared as usual. Most of the men had set out to hunt. Fires were burning. Water, had been brought from the pool inside the great cave by The Elders. Women were crushing roots, breaking open pods, scraping hides, stitching with bone needles, twisting fibres into coarse thread and suckling their young. Everything was as it always had been.

Catching sight of him, Tahi offered Yat a portion of dry, semi-cooked meat and a few equally dry bulbs. These he chewed in silence, squatting by the nearest low flames. Three of the womenfolk emerged from beneath the leafy screen below bearing armloads of firewood and chattering together, until they saw Yat.

Later, testing himself against his mother and the others, he limped off to find a fire carrier; this time a discarded banteng horn, and took it to the nearest fire thrusting it deep so that living coals filled the hollow flute. None challenged him, although he knew they watched, and he departed without a backward glance; confident again in his daring, but still uncertain of what he had gained. He guessed that he was still accepted as one of The Tribe, yet he was unsure now of his place. What was expected of him? What was he to do next?

He climbed: not with any conscious aim. The way before him seemed easy enough using one arm and both feet, whilst in the other hand he bore his friend yat, feeding him here and there with bits of twigs and dry leaves. As he saw it, yat was Yat's; his own creature, his only living companion: his brother. It was a simplistic notion, though it formed the basis of a concept, rightly or wrongly, and that was a step however small in the development of his awareness. He was aware also of the power curled within the fingers of his faecal hand. That power he had spent and gained and re-spent and regained before the fire and The Tribe, and once again he held it in the horn and the eyes of the coals simmering inside its hardness. Aloft he thrust his brother as he scrambled higher toward the nests of cliff-dwelling birds. What was he seeking?

Food? That was a constant. All the Tribe, with the exception of the helpless and the smallest, sought it; and even babies from the moment of birth quested at their mother's teats.

Solitude? That he could have in any direction, if he so felt the need. What was it that took him higher?

He could not have told, and that is certain. Perhaps it was because the heights were there to be climbed and explored; heights so far removed from his life beneath the canopies of jungle and forest and the wild, open tracts of grasslands. Perhaps, in his primitive way, he was reaching toward the sky, desirous to feel an unknown wind burning across his face.

No future Olympian, bearing his torch aloft, could have felt more exhilaration than that which moved Yat. For the first time in his short life he was struck, however fleetingly, by a feeling of a greater power, greater than he or the Tribe, or the unrelenting savagery of life itself. He could not put his incoherent and fragmentary thoughts into any order; they came and went unbidden, blown out upon his breath. They were like little, indistinct pictures, like bubbles, bursting before he could form a pattern that was graspable. And yet they were a beginning. They would, eventually, form a basis for reverence; for the contemplation of nature and the elements of the world surrounding him. Fire, and now air, and the distant, slow-dawning realisation of it was forming in Yat's mind. His lungs, filling with the fresh scent of the morning, began to sear and he fell to his knees, his tongue lolling like a panting animal. Suddenly he began searching for the food that might keep his brother alive. But there was nothing; no wood, not even a twig: only sun-warmed stone and sand. Yat ran six fingers through the sand, a sense of dread overtaking him: yat, his friend, his brother, would die without food; and all he scooped up, to trail and sift through his fingers was running sand. He looked at it. He had never really seen sand before. It was hard to hold, hard to keep, before it moved and slid back to where it had been before. And it would not feed his fire, no matter how long he tried.

Only one object remained in his hand after all his effort; it fascinated him. It was roughly oval, flattish, though curved. It had colours. He bit at it; licked its surface. This was not like the clay that The Tribe sometimes found and fashioned into rough shapes for water carriers. This was smooth, as smooth as bleached bone.

Further on he found more, different each to another, but the same. Some few he kept, tucking them into the folds of his skin girdle. His brother's eyes died.

And caught between the sorrow of fire death and the unknown of shell discovery, Yat stumbled on, to at last fall upon the summit. He could climb no further. He lay there, amongst the dry remains of myriad, minute marine creatures, his eyes upward-slanting to the sky; the breath coming out of him in gasps, tears and snot running into his open mouth. This was defeat: the death of his fire. And this was reward: the discovery of strange objects on a strange mountain in a strange void. Here was a paradox for which Yat was not prepared, nor able to reconcile. He had seen sand and shells for the first time upon the top of a high place, and they were both alien and puzzling. Perhaps the round things might delight The Tribe, although he could not find any value in them except as curios. More puzzling to him again was the experience of lying there upon the hard tip of the world he was coming to know, staring up at the sheer blue of sky. For certain, men had long watched the night, the stars and moon, and screwed their eyes toward the sun in passing wonder; but Yat's vision was that of a child's, and more: he had mounted one of nature's temples, and was touched by the unattainable beauty and mystery beyond. But he had absolutely no way to gather his feelings and instincts into any logical order. His brain was not capable of accommodating such abstractions. He was simply moved by the vast unknown, as people in the future would be moved to erect towering spires heavenward. And Yat was motivated by his own individual and self-imposed being; and through that he glimpsed the designs of nature that others could not yet envisage. Here were concepts he did not understand; though in his primal reasoning, his cunning; was prepared to face and to force into a pattern suitable to his advantage.

The sky moaned as the wind chased ragged clouds over the horizon. The burning ball of sun wandered in and out of the clouds; now hidden now revealed. Fleetingly he had an image of his fire and of the fire that was the sun. Yat the fire, and yat the sun. Long after, he was to ponder that image.

As he descended, the dead horn clutched in his hand, he wandered through queer formations of age-worn rock that seemed to him like row after row of standing peoples turned to stone. Were they the folk of the great cave below? Had they, as he, climbed to seek the sun? Would he too become as they? He hurried on as best his burnt feet could carry him, and rounding an outcrop his gaze fell to the horizon far below. This was in the direction from which The Tribe had previously roamed, roughly North-west, and Yat, perched at his vantage point, peered out over a vast, late afternoon area of forest. Now he was brought sharply back from his vague and unfathomable wanderings to the reality of his own existence. Smoke smudged the dark green of the jungle, rising over the roof of the trees. And it was not the smoke of forest fire. It was the smoke of men. Yat's nostrils flared involuntarily. Others, not of his people, for the smoke was too far away, were there beneath the canopy.

Chapter 4


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