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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter 4 - Yat's Death


When he came again to the great cave by the fading light of the day the men were busy bringing in their catch: they had done well; pig, tarsier and monkey, and the camp thrummed with the joy of food for that night and for some nights to come. At Yat's appearance the adults viewed him cautiously, whilst the smaller children kept mostly to their mothers.

Still holding the horn of his dead brother, Yat limped around the outskirts, seeking and finding a place alone in the growing darkness beyond the fires. There, in the shadows, he would have hidden, attempting to grasp the events of his adventure, but Banta, his father, unexpectedly sought him out and drew him into the light; perhaps hoping for a repeat of the night before.

So Yat found himself again standing in front of the fires where meat roasted over the coals at his back, and The Tribe waited, watching him closely. This time however he was troubled by what he believed to be the presence of other humans in the forest, and this both alarmed and excited him so that it was difficult to face The Tribe and react to their expectations. He stood before them, small and frail, the horn dangling from his fingers; empty of brother fire. Dimly, he was aware that he must do something. Again he was in possession of a secret unknown to his people and he guessed that this might be turned to his advantage. Yet he was confused by other visions: the climb and the winds of the heights, the heady air, sunlight and cloud, the strange feeling, peering up into the sky: the filtering sand that fled between his trembling fingers. Then he remembered the objects still lodged in his loincloth. His narrow, dark eyes brightened, though those watching him remained unaware; they saw only the motionless figure come suddenly to life, heard a low cry, even as the smell of meat opened their nostrils setting saliva running in their mouths. Meanwhile Yat, the child, the solitary and mysterious and unpredictable creature amongst them, bent to dip his animal horn into the coals, filled and raised it up before them; sparks shooting out of the hollow and into the night. The Tribe were now eager and attuned; spittle dried on their lips, nostrils flared again, not with anticipation of feasting, but of something else to come. Some amongst them, indeed, hoped that it would be Yat's downfall. But even they were fixed, pupils enlarged in the night, to take in what might follow.

A rising call, echoing scavenger birds, escaped Yat's throat as he swayed, holding the horn, out-thrust in both hands, twisting it this way and that, so more sparks showered into the air. Then he reached into his girdle seeking the shells that pressed against his groin, and tossed them one after another at the feet of the Elders, and finally at Banta's and Banji's.

The fire crackled, bursting into fury as a new log took and flared. Food-smell wafted over the onlookers unheeded. Moments passed whilst the objects were examined. A muttering arose. What were these things? Not food. Not tools or weapons. Useless. Valueless. The Elders and Leaders looked toward Yat in consternation, though it was left to Banji, who arose from his woman, a shell clutched in his hand, to shout and stamp forward as spokesman. These were not of any good to The Tribe. These were nothing. Banji threw down the shell and waited, menacingly.

Yat shrank back toward the fire until the dull pain in his feet became a new, sudden pain as they touched the scorched earth. At that moment he knew he could not retreat further, that he was cornered. Instinctively he lifted the horn between he and The Tribe Leader, and in that defensive gesture raised a symbol that halted Banji. Indeed he was astounded, uncertain of the action. Was this defiance, fear, or simply madness?

Before he had time to recover, Yat, in an emboldened voice, began his tale; acting out the climb with exaggerated movements employing words and sounds to embellish the journey to the summit, the loss of his brother fire and the discovery of the shells. And concluding with his vision of the fires of others, somewhere beyond on the forest floor. At this revelation, some openly scoffed in disbelief, but Yat countered, arguing that the strange objects were his proof. His story was the truth; the shells were a part of it and they were there for all to see. If the objects were there, then the men in the forest were there also. Had he not burned his feet to show again that his words were the truth? Had he not spoken truly of the Great Cave? Had he not allowed his brother fire to die, that he might find the shells and see the smoke of the forest men?

The logic of his argument dumbfounded them, or rather illogically, confused them; and as the moments passed and the balance shifted, they were as the child, and he the adult. Grasping at their credulous silence and uncertainty, Yat hopped away into the darkness, prepared to go hungry whilst they stuffed themselves. This, he felt sure, would mystify them all the more, for none able enough ever turned their backs when food was there to be taken. Water and food were life, and to disdain them was the act of madness or perhaps of something beyond The Tribe's ability to understand.

When his people regained their composure and became aware of his aloofness from them and the hunt's bounty, they ceased their uncertain grumbling and turned to the fire and the roasting meats. But a little part of Yat remained with them as they stared into the flames, for yat the fire, moving sinuously, undulating along the dry wood, reminded them of his closeness to it; of the unknown folk in the forest somewhere behind, and of their own Yat.

That night the feasting was somewhat subdued. The children, becoming restless after a time, were cuffed, scolded and taken into the cave by the women and Elders. The warriors of The Tribe, having eaten their fill, sucking the marrow out of the splintered bones and spitting anything they disliked at their feet, lay about the fires, chipping flints and muttering together. Yat's father Banta approached the boy with a few morsels left over from the night's cook and set them down beside his son, hoping to tempt him. But Yat, awake and hungry, refused the food, instead feeding his brother on twigs and leaves so that the coals of the horn ate on his behalf. Mystified, Banta withdrew to seek Banji, who had sent his woman away and was brooding before the glowing flames of the last fire.

Before Yat's eyes finally closed and sleep claimed him, he noticed, with vague satisfaction, that Banji had set several men at either side of the open area before the cave to watch.

At first glimmer of light, Yat awoke, his belly rumbling, and he was at once tempted to reach for the leftovers of the night before; but they were gone, and in their place was a single shell. This he thrust into his mouth, rubbing it around his teeth and gums, stimulating saliva. The fires of the camp were down to grey ash and sullen coals; his own brother was again dead in the horn at his side. The watchers were hardly visible, squatting amongst the foliage on the borders of the verge. Around and below, birds and animals engaged in the round of morning signals and warnings against predators that heralded every sunrise. The folk of The Tribe were still within the confines of the great cave, and there some women were abroad, catching at bats and wide-spanned insects. A baby began to hack and cry.

Yat forced himself stiffly to his feet, and made his way to the closest fire-site. There he renewed his brother. This, those observant of The Tribe noted, he did before anything else. He did not look for food or water, nor did he urinate. He was far too aware that there were eyes upon him as he set off toward the falls, once there to void his bladder and bowels of the scant matter which they contained.

After splashing himself in the freezing stream he returned to the camp where cooking fires were again flickering and men and women were busied at various tasks. When his mother Tahi offered him food he accepted, eating slowly and thoughtfully; though very hungry, he was not about to allow any the satisfaction of seeing this. Whilst he ate he gazed absently at the little procession of younger children and their mothers filing away toward the waterfall, and another group, Elders, entering the cave carrying fire sticks, to wash in the pool deep within. Those remaining were men, including Banta and Banji, working at the weaving of rough strands, beaten and twisted out of coarse fibre, to be used as fowling nets, or trimming stone flakes and bone tips for axes and thrusting spears.

Without really understanding the feeling, which was in fact a faint stirring of resentment, Yat found himself scowling at all these activities: The Tribe had taken over the great cave, and brushed him aside. They were wary and aware of him, but still they had moved into his cave with barely a nod of disapproval in his direction, only paying attention when bidden by his strange antics. For that, as much as for his own self-imposed exile, he stared glumly at all those of his people; the corners of his mouth down-turned. He had made no effort to see again the fantastic and exceptional drawings and markings of the interior, guessing instinctively that The Elders would not allow this; not unless he challenged and broke their power. And that was an unthinkable thing for a young boy to consider.

Even Banji, the Tribe Leader, strong in body and courage, would not defy The Elders, for they were the carriers and the vessels of wisdom, of all knowledge and lore gathered over the long gone generations. In them lay the storehouse of the past. They were the only way back to the known, to the safety and security of what had already been. Only by their memory, spilling forth from mind and mouth, was learning transmitted into the present.

As to the future, The Tribe had little consideration. They looked from day to day, as food availed day to day, as the sun arose day to day, as darkness crowded in on them every night. They knew the order of the seasons, and roughly the length, and they knew the signs that heralded the turn and approach of them. Yet they saw the future, if they saw it at all, as a progression of exactly the same events that had passed within living memory, and avoided any prospect which might alter their way of life. The Tribe was not prepared for swift or unusual change, and this in itself left them vulnerable. They subconsciously clung to the past, for in it lay certainty, as opposed to the uncertainty of days in the future. The present held danger enough to absorb all thinking, all their effort at survival. And now the present and Yat's tale of smoke in the hostile forest filled them with deep foreboding. Some indeed did not think of his words so much as a statement of fact, but rather more as prophesy. After all, Yat had told of a great cave in his feet-burning dance, and that had become the truth; and now again he had produced the little round objects, and from them he promised smoke and fire and the growth of strangers in the forest. To a few, his observations transposed into visions, and these became reality. Dread insinuated its way, one by one, as rumour spread from the few to the many. What was this child, this different creature from all the rest? How could he see that which no other could? What power did he have that enabled him to do such a thing? He had yat. He had the fire.

They, those who pondered such questions, became enthralled at the possible answers; for they began to look upon Yat as either a saviour who could foretell what was to happen, or as a terrible deviate capable of invoking all manner of woes upon The Tribe. And so, undecided, many of The Tribe viewed him with an admixture of adulation and fear. Should they attempt to kill him and thus arouse his wrath against them? Or should they fall at the too-many-toed feet of this stripling and beg his favour?

As Yat chewed and swallowed the last of his scant meal, Banji approached, a well-balanced bone-tipped lance dipping toward the stone where the boy squatted. Without speaking, The Tribe leader bent his spear in the direction of the jungle. Again it was time for Yat to prove himself, or to depart the camp and never return. The sores and cracks in his feet hardly noticed, he arose, his heart thumping, his fingers hefting the fire-horn. There would be hunting that morning, but hunting of a different kind; for The Elders had finally decided to heed Yat's warning. If it was the truth, then there was urgent need for them to know what manner of people stalked the deep rainforest, their number, and their intentions. If his tale was a lie, then he would be dealt with accordingly. Yat guessed as much, and saw also that this time he was in great danger; for caves did not move, but men did. He knew that he must find them, or at least the positive signs of their passing. Smoke, seen from the heights above the cave could not appease The Tribe: only actual contact.

So the hunters followed Yat beneath the great, leafy canopy, leaving Banta and a few other men, including Tharta One-eye, behind to protect the women and children. Banta had protested this, fearing for his son, and had been firmly overruled by The Elders, who deemed it wise that he should stay, naming him Leader in Banji's place, but to themselves ensuring that he would not be on hand in case Yat met with some accident before returning. Banta knew this, but was helpless to do other than the will of The Elders. Banji knew it too, and knew also what was required of him. Likewise, Yat also was well aware that his standing with The Tribe and his very life depended on the outcome. If ever there was a time that he was tempted to flee, or to beg for mercy, his ordeal to come in the jungle was that time. Only the hard horn of his brother-fire and the single shell clenched between his teeth kept him from such actions. And, as they travelled silently through the splashes of sunlight and the webs of shadow, he renewed his courage at the gamble, and strengthened himself in his resolve to be tall in the eyes and minds of The Tribe.

Eight passings of the wet seasons were not so young for those of that long ago. True, it was not manhood, even though life spans reaching forty, to fifty were normal and twelve to fourteen considered adult; and Yat was by no means an average child. In his own solitary way he was precocious and ambitious in the extreme; and his desire, still formulating, glowed like the coals of his brother. They drank the nectar of wild orchids and the dewy waters of the leaves, ignoring the rowdy barkings and howls of monkeys and the raucous cries of brilliantly coloured birds overhead as they progressed deeper into the jungle. Hunters such as these were aware of the warning sounds of creatures; but these did not distress them, since such warnings were similar whether given at the approach of men or of any other natural enemy. In fact, the hunters often imitated these sounds to their advantage, luring or setting the game to flight at need.

Eventually, a little before mid-morning: Yat halted, gesturing ahead toward a hardly visible clearing amid the towering jungle giants. Thin wisps of smoke drifted across their line of sight, but otherwise, nothing moved. Tentatively, the hunters closed the distance between; watchful on all sides, weapons raised. Everything beyond lay empty of life but for several smoking fires. Now their powerful sense of smell came into play. Yat could tell without further examination, that here in fact was the deserted camp of other humans. Banji and the others realised this too, and warily began poking about the remains of habitation; overturning blackened animal bones and flint cutting chips. A rough stone axe, apparently discarded by the user, lay amongst the piles of refuse left behind. This rubbish consisted of the inedible parts of animals such as bowel contents and gristle, cartilage, fur and hide remnants and the dung deposits of the people themselves.

These indeed, concluded Banji, were men like enough to his own people. Like yes, but unlike also, as his nose told him, for he could smell a difference. They were strange, and the strangeness held its own particular taint of fear within it. Then a further consideration struck him; where were these strangers now? Suddenly all thought of Yat, who was busy at the last dying coals feeding his so-called brother, was of little importance. What if, already, the newcomers had evaded them? What if they had found the cave?

In haste, Banji yapped out his orders and set off at once on the return journey, the men following, glowering and rattling their weapons at the still screen of jungle that soon surrounded them.

Yat, ignored in the frantic need to reach the cave, was left to make his own way. For some moments, gaping at their departure, he was stricken with unreasoning fear, until he began to grow calmer. He was unhurt, and alone; though he could still smell and faintly hear the men as they moved rapidly away from him. But Yat had been alone in the jungle ever since he could recall. It held dangers surely: deadly dangers, yet the aloneness in itself posed no new threat. In a way he became almost relieved; Banji and the others had seen enough of his proof. That could not be undone. They had left him behind, and that was bad. Still it was for the good of The Tribe to return swiftly bringing news and the protection of the hunters.

So did Yat comfort himself, setting out in pursuit; the old horn, now gradually charring out its innards, lifted forward as he ran. Of course, even on his skinny shanks and sore feet, Yat was able and used to moving through dense growth where men were not, and eventually he chose a route away from Banji's, amusing himself that he might actually overtake them, or even reach the great cave before they did. This, to Yat, conjured up a fine sight; he awaiting the hunters, they bringing with them the truth of his claim. He found his way in and out of the dark, dank mire of long dead undergrowth turned to mulch that lies undisturbed over countless years on the forest floor, always keeping Banji's party, on his food-hand and eventually drawing abreast of the band, as best he could tell. Yat could hear them on occasion, and still faintly scent their trail. Then, a little further on, on his side, he could smell something else. It was not the smell of his people, but that of those at the camp in the jungle at his back. The smoke was still upon them; the sweat of fear at noon lay in their waiting. They were somewhere ahead.

The fire in Yat's horn began to blink out, renewed only by a few dry leaves and twigs grubbed out of a space where the sun pierced unhindered. Comforted by the tiny glow of his brother, Yat again crept forward, aware that his tribesfolk were away on his food-hand, almost parallel to him, and that the others waited directly in their line of march. The smell of them grew stronger in his wide nostrils, and it suddenly occurred to him that they must surely smell him too. But then he realised with the faintness of a soft cross breeze in his face that he was upwind of them. Did Banji know of their presence, or was the subtle breeze wafting their scent slightly to one side? Moving as quietly and swiftly as he could amongst the impeding undergrowth, Yat began to work his way in a direction that would cross the route of the hunters. The strangers, he guessed were relying almost solely on their sense of hearing and that would be enough, since Banji's men were moving quickly, with scant concern of the noise they made.

Soon Yat was standing at a place maybe two hundred paces from his oncoming people; indeed he could glimpse the odd flash of movement even at that distance through the sunlit spaces of the jungle floor. Beyond, and not far off he was sure the newcomers lurked; though now their smell was lost to him, as it was to Banji's group. Sight and hearing were the only senses left of importance to Yat and to the peoples: the one converging, the other lying in wait.

Crouched in the heavy, damp forest matting he awaited the emergence of his folk, uncertain of the distance of the strangers at his back. It was only a matter of moments before the hunters came into sight, and at once Yat stood up, the horn lifted high so that they would mark him as their own.

On that instant, he was hurled to the ground; a screaming that was not his, but soon was, filled his head. Pain raked his body, and weight pinned him so that his face was pressed into the suffocating humid mulch of the age-old jungle. The last that Yat knew was a screeching wail that died away to nothing . . .

Chapter 5


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