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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Six - The New Way

Banta and Banji died together in a terrible accident.
Others too.
And many there of the men were injured.

The news, and the bodies of the dead came, borne by the survivors, two days later.
They had been caught in a stampede on the open plain. The lumbering bantengs, a herd as thick as the grass which fed them, had turned for no apparent reason upon the hunters herding them toward those lying in wait.
Afterward, the trampled lay dead and dying of blood loss and mutilation and shock.
Almost a quarter of The Tribe's best and most reliable hunters went down that morning, never to witness another noon.

This time the hunt reaped a harvest of sorrow and the mounds of those passed beyond life grew in number beneath the jungle fringe.
The women wailed, their cries striking deeply into the breasts of the aged, of those broken but left alive, and of the children, who picked up the dirge and howled along with their mothers.
'Oh-ah! Oh-ah! Oh-ah!'
So rang the anguished, hair-pulling, thigh and arm scratching torment which was the embodiment of their unreasoning desire to elevate the dead to living manhood once again; to have it as it was, and could never be.
So clamoured the mourners, turning to the Elders for some tiny vestige of comfort: some magic incantation that might ease the misery.
The old folk, having recollection of similar disasters in the past, gave as much succour as was within them, but in the mourning nights that followed, out of utter desperation, looked toward Yat.
Yat however was totally absorbed with the turmoil of his own inner feelings.
Again, he was projected into the boy, not the being he was set upon creating; and for a long time he cried as a boy, holding his mother to him, and could think of nothing else.

When the immediate question of food arose, The Tribe mechanically resumed their routine; Cros now leading, Tharta One-eye taking his place with those others fit to hunt.
Early on a first bird call dawn, they made off, shifting as vanishing shapes into the curling mists.
Behind, the Elders, women and children, and those too injured to be of any use, watched them depart, then turned to begin their ritual battle of survival.

Yat was astonished with himself. He had wept at his father's death, had consoled his mother and allowed the others a glimpse of the vulnerable child behind the fire and the shadow.
Hardening his heart, he determined to recapture some of the respect he felt waning and went about the camp in stony silence; hauling dry wood for the fires, packing open wounds with moist clay and leaf poultices, grubbing food of all kinds in his daily wanderings. And keeping silent watch, alone and unobserved at night.

Four days later, on the afternoon of the hunters return; they bringing in a fair catch of game, amongst which was the carcase of a banteng bull, Yat resolved to dance that night before his people.
In secret he painted his body, using the yellows and reds and browns of earth colour, mixed with animal fat and smeared on; his fingers weaving circles and undulating lines along and across the flesh of his legs and chest.
Upon his faecal arm, he drew a waving line that ended at his throat, and on his food arm, from neck to wrist, another line that terminated at his hand in the form of a spearhead. He smothered his face in grey ash and then, carrying only the old, worn stump of horn, suddenly appeared amidst his subdued people where they squatted, rocking their babies on their knees.

He came to them as an apparition out of the night.
They knew it was Yat; but they knew also that it was the other Yat.
So when he bounded out of the darkness on the far side of the flames, the light flickering and washing over his painted figure, they were at once mesmerised, shaken from the stupor of food and dolour.
He made no sound.
Only the fires cracked away, sparks shooting into the dome of the sky, as he began to move, the horn clasped before him.
They watched, held like tiny animals in the unbending gaze of the serpent.
The heat hazed about his undulating body, the horn held now up to his face, seemed like the trunk of vast grey beasts that lumbered, trumpeting, through their minds.
The coils of colour winding about his belly and chest drew their eyes this way, that way, as he jerked and swayed beyond the yellow tongues of fire.
And when he lifted the horn above his head, freezing into a stillness that riveted even the young of the clan, the tribe's folk held their collective breath.
There was a pause; a moment of total immobility that waxed between he and they.
They and he, rigid: awaiting the next action.
With an audible gush of breath and effort, Yat heaved the worn, burnt-out husk of the horn into the flames, his mouth open, the circle of his lips remaining, an unspoken question hanging in the space between.
The fire curled about the old horn, tongues of green and blue wandering, feeling a path around the pitted surfaces.
What was it that Yat was saying to them?
Why had he thrown away the very emblem of himself?
Yat fell to his knees, twisting the trunk of his body and opening his arms so that they pointed roughly north-west and south-east. And it was then that the people saw the line running along the arm nearest them, terminating at the spear-head painted upon the furthest palm; the extended fingers reaching toward the roof of the jungle and the unseen plain beyond.

Yat did not speak.
The spear spoke.
The spear upon his body spoke, and it told them all that was needed to be said; the time had come to depart the great cave and move on into the unknown country that lay over the horizon where their hunters had never walked.

When he left the fires, fading like smoke into the darkness, the folk of his clan came again to themselves. They looked upon the place where he had danced, and at the smouldering bone of horn eaten away in the embers. Yat would not return that night, and some wondered if he would ever be seen again.
Like fire he had been.
And now, like smoke, had he become.
For some long time, after sending the younger women and children into the interior of the cave where they were now permitted, The Elders, the warrior leaders and a few chosen women, Tahi amongst them, debated Yat's mysterious visitation.
Some argued that the great cave had become as a home to them, a secure place against outside dangers; indeed a place of much power held in the ancient drawings on the walls within. Others argued that the power had ebbed away, that the graves of the dead had sucked out all of its strength, that maybe Yat himself had caused this by daring to copy the works of the long vanished peoples.

It was left to Cros who, like dead Banji before him, half believed in Yat, to make some statement.
In so many words and signs he showed them how most of the cave food was gone, and how far now the hunters must travel in search of real game. And further he called them to remember their ways of old: both their tribes had always roamed, following the wild creatures and the herds, harvesting the growth of the earth in new lands to sustain their very existence.
It was the time, he said, to do as Yat had indicated.
The ground was full with the bodies of their old, and their strong; it had given and it had taken away.
One day, Cros told them, they would return when those left behind were grown into the land as trees and rocks, and everything had come to be a place of bounty enriched by their bones and blood.
But now, too much sorrow hung over their camp.

In a final gesture, Cros carried out the paired horns of the young banteng, and placed them before the dying fires.
Then, as the others retired, he took up solitary guard, feeding the central hearth, and watching far into the night.
Yat did not return.
Eventually, sleep claimed Cros, and he sank into a coiled position beside the blinking coals.
Only Tharta One-eye remained awake, his bleared sight clearing occasionally as he dozed off and on, catching the outline of the horns where they appeared to rear up from out of the ground before his dazed vision.
Later, he wondered whether he had dreamed, or actually seen a pair of eyes, balefully staring from beneath the shadowed curves.

Tahi, mother of Yat, moaned in her uncomfortable position; curled amongst the Elder women, who had finally accepted her as a junior in their ranks.
She was in pain.
It took the shape of physical pain, but was in truth, the ache of body only after the mind had decreed it so.
Her man Banta was gone, lying with the others, weighted by stones and soil, that he might not arise again to walk troubled across the troubled land.
Her son had become as a strange and frightening creature by night and by day, solitary and removed from her touch. Only during the time immediately after Banta's death had there been a softening, a tiny glimpse behind the masks that Yat presented; but that had vanished before she could lay hold of it out of her own grief.
She was disturbed also by Cros.
She was not old, even if the Elder women roughly bade her stay in their company, and she had seen Cros watching her.
Cros had no woman.
Cros had no woman, though now as leader of the cave clan he could well have taken one, or more.
And when he watched her, it made Tahi's belly shrivel. He was not Banta.
He was not truly of The Tribe.
He was different: younger than Banta, strong enough, but not strong also.
He did not do, or even give sign of anything more. Only his eyes watched.
This greatly concerned Tahi, in her unguarded sleep, and the pain of loss and the desire for what she could not explain swept over her, defeated her, and drove her down into the realm of dream.
Through the pain that her mind made real, she saw the moving, dancing sticks that were the paintings of figures on the cave walls.
She saw the hands; black hands, black fingers, making the sticks, making them move with life.
She saw the terrifying trampling of the sticks. She saw the broken sticks.
She saw Cros watching her; his face not a stick, but a real face, waiting for her, offering, yet not demanding.
And beyond his face, his ridged brow, the steady eyes, the line and curve of his nose and lips and chin, she saw the sticks of Yat's figure, far in the distance, standing alone.
She trembled in her distress.
Her eyes half-opened, the whites and pupils lanced by a sliver of moonlight that pierced to her bedding place, and in her anguish the secretions of sleep and tears crusted around them, and the dreams died.

Yat did not return for two days, and when he did he came as a young boy out of the forest, aware,
healthy enough, and expectant.
He came as Yat-by-day; naked, his loin-strip of hide filled with roots and fungus and eggs, a dead lemur draped about his shoulders.
He came softly enough to witness the camp before his people were aware of him.
What he saw surprised him. The fires were unlit. The clan waited on the verge of departure, ready to move, requiring only the command to go, or to stay.
And they waited for him.
Polydactyl-Yat in the light of the morning was not the Fire-Yat of night. Staring hard, his teeth suddenly chattering in the cold, he fought back his fears and elation.
It seemed that The Tribe had reached a decision; that they were prepared to follow his unspoken advice.
All at once this discomforted and frightened him, for if his lead proved wrong, if ill befell the cave people, then blame would rest on him.
Responsibility hung like a weight, as if the lemur had turned to stone about his neck.
Yat had seldom before considered his actions and the far-reaching effects they might produce.
He had only considered himself.
He had come to desire, with all his being, only to outstrip and rise above them, as the stick drawings of himself out-rose all others in the hidden paintings of the great cave: and now he saw himself emerging from the green embrace of the jungle, naked and small.
Silently they watched his slow approach, but as he saw himself, hesitant and awkward, they viewed him otherwise.
They were relieved at his return; his size, his age, now meant nothing to them.
If anything, at most it had taken on a symbolic value; setting a balance between the wise Elders and the new, mystical learning of youth.

Many there, were certain that the Yat of the fire, the dancing dream-Yat of night, now slept in the body of the boy before them.
This was He-who-had-risen-again, true, and the scars he bore and the too-many-fingers proved that: and like the fire which dwells best in the darkness, so there prowls the dancer, the one to show the way into the light.
So crowded the thoughts and guesses and uncertainties of the cave folk as Yat, in equal confusion, reached their foremost. Suddenly he had the wild urge to urinate.
His bladder was almost empty, but was swamped in a frenzy of apprehension so gripping that he had to clench his buttocks.

Meanwhile, Cros gave a signal, motioning forward some at the rear of the massed people.
The way parted and two of The Elders, old men with curly, grey-white hair and grizzled beards, emerged; the twin horns of the banteng hefted between them.
These, they lifted over Yat's head, their backs to the crowd. On the moment, there arose a slow whoop-whoop of sound that was not song, nor word as such, but an increasing volume of pure praise.

Later, as they travelled, as they had always travelled in the past, Yat was to feel the swell of pride and power bursting through his head and body.
He had spent a while lingering by his father's resting place, and visited the paintings of the great cave for the last time; the flames of the torches lighting these fantastic images across the walls to where they merged and fused with those of his own creation. And then, emerging, he had caught sight of his mother Tahi, the lemur draped about her shoulders like an important gift, at the verge of the jungle, helping along a very old woman who could barely walk.

So, through the days and the seasons that followed, Yat 's people moved on, working their way south and west, south and east; and this was largely due to the gradual shift of animal and bird life across the old migratory paths.
The smallest and the largest creatures had begun to alter their patterns as the climate slowly, majestically swung through the poles of absolute cold toward warmer temperatures and the gradual, melting ice-locked water at the extremes of the earth.
The landscape changed by degrees.

But this was no swift and sudden disturbance; rather a minute and continual graduation out of the glacial age, that lay rooted in the remote past, toward the establishment of forest and jungle. And a rich green spread of growth in the open tracts that once had been dotted by shrivelled and hardy grasses.
The windswept wastes of stony ground and low uplands were becoming gardens of wild cereals and grain, destined long off in the future for domestication and cultivation by the hand of later Man. Yet it was enough that life teemed out into those regions north and south of the equatorial belt; creating new, habitable areas.
The hunters of Yat's time however were in ignorance of much happening about them, and certainly of that to follow in the future.
They were concerned only with the preservation of their individual groups; groups that developed from family to clan, banded together against the elements, the fierce creatures of the wilds, and other hostile tribes fighting for their own survival.
The wholesale intermingling of Yat's folk and those led by Cros had been an exceptional digression.
Although in later days one that would be repeated with increasing regularity by many peoples caught up in the overall need to cling together wherever threatened by the vibrant, exotic world emerging out of a harsh, dormant climate of ice-age into the dawn of the post glacial era.

Humans, numbering only tens of thousands across the southern climes, still encountered each other, and generally the results were war-like: one clan overpowered, the males killed off, women and children abducted and absorbed into the conquering enemy-fold.

Indeed, several times Yat's wandering cave-folk had eluded, or at need, fought off attacks, and this in itself was a motivating force that kept them continually mobile. Yet without their slightest perception, all people were again on the march; spreading far and wide after an age of compression and inactivity in the warmest belt of the planet. This inactivity, coupled with a food shortage so calamitous as to have seen the devastation of whole species and a terrific decline in the survivors, had contributed immensely to the plight of Man.
In the inhospitable winter of the last great ice age, countless tribes had withered, perishing through starvation and frostbite in the wind-sweeping, icy wastes.
But the reproductive cycle of those who remained merely faltered and slowed, as did that of other creatures who lapsed into a quasi-hibernation that saw them appear at brief moments during the blunted summers of a frozen world.

In the duration of Yat's span, those sun-lost days were almost forgotten; barely kept alive in the dim memories of folklore where mighty, woolly beasts roared, and cave-lurking horrors stalked their faintest dreams.
Yat was now thirteen years old as the seasons counted. He had grown somewhat taller, around four and one half feet in modern measurement, and had developed into a gangly youth; the fleshing out of his bones still incomplete. By this time he had firmly set himself apart, and in turn The Tribe reinforced his will.
To some extent he had become a living totem; an oracle and guide, consulted by The Elders and leaders whenever they felt the need.
Indeed, many considered him infallible, which was both a strength and a weakness for Yat, so that he began to develop ways of answering their questions without ever totally committing himself.

As Yat foresaw, this was a safeguard against the danger of predicting wrongly on any issue, for to do so was a certain path toward loss of esteem in the eves of his people. Therefore, if asked whether it was wise to remain or to move on, he would answer as the situation permitted: what had he observed in his daily wanderings?
Animals and birds remaining in the area, abundance of food for gathering, other human activity in the locality, fierce predators sighted, the smell and feel of the land; all these, together with his own singular instinct, were weighed and balanced before Yat would give any reply.
For much of the time, that would agree with the feelings of The Tribe, and they were satisfied.
If, however, his thoughts conflicted with those of the Elders, Yat might give ground, suggesting that what they wanted was good, though some dangers abounded, and what he wanted, his way, was also good; perhaps even better.
Danger, he often warned, lay at every step.
To stay in one place too long might well bring others down upon them, to go forward was to go with the knowledge that the unknown lay ahead.
It was the simplest of reasoning, and yet those of the clan took his words and thoughts as seriously as any of their number, weighing each decision mostly in Yat's direction.

Fortune, and his self-taught craft and cunning favoured him, even when they reached water; a most formidable barrier to men who had dwelt for generations without ever so much as sighting the open sea.
When, for the first time, this actually occurred, Yat and The Tribe were astounded.
Before them lay not a stream, or even a river that they could follow until a way across offered itself where the waters narrowed, but a vast stretch of rolling grey that swept from food hand to dung hand as far as the eye could see. And on the horizon only the distant, dim smudge of darker colouring low beneath the clouds, that at first they took to be cloud. But as the days passed and the sky brightened over their camp upon the shore, those far-sighted enough could make out the greens and browns of distant trees waving upon the crest of land.

This though, was not what surprised and delighted, mystified and frightened Yat's people, they were instead enmeshed by the sea itself.
For as the tide swelled and surged landward and pulled away on its ebb, so were they drawn and repelled; mesmerised by the mighty onslaught and decline of it.
They had never before smelt the sharpness in their nostrils of salt and wrack, of rotting fish and crustaceans; nor had they seen such life forms, alive or dead.
Even the birds of the region were little known to them. Fish, they were aware of only as the dwellers of fresh water haunts. Shells, the like of which Yat had discovered high on the hills above their old cave abode, abounded and were gathered as treasure until the abundance cheapened their worth, and only the most exotic and lesser found were prized.

But the ocean itself was the cause of greatest wonderland anxiety.
Here was an end to their world.
A place to stand trembling: to look out across, and to look back from.
The smell of it, the taste of it, was alien to them: its strength and secret depths disturbed them.
To play on the white, sanded shore, to wade into the bracing foam, was a joy; but to stray further out, was a terror. At best, the strongest and youngest of their people managed a dog-paddle, part mastered in the slower streams of the interior, but most of their number were too timid to do more than splash in the shallows.
And the concept of travel over wide sheets of water was utterly beyond the collective mind of the clan.

At this tremendous turning point, most of The Tribe were content to camp at the edge of their world; dreaming of the chance to begin their return into the safety of open land and forest: the familiar, welcome hold of all that they had known in the past.
They could not have imagined that they stood upon the threshold of discovery, and that to turn about, retracing their steps, was to return to the old way of a time that was already lost to them.

Chapter 7


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