Home   International Poetry Fiction Non-fiction
© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Eight - The Old One


When the baby came, it was not a birth like Yat's. Tahi laboured for a long time, breathing out the child inch by inch, slow, slow; crying, shouting her pain, feeling the living, pulsing thing coming away from her.
After the torture eased, she lay back, her eves closed, listening to the fragile wail of the baby curled upon her abdomen.
Tahi had not the courage to open her eyes; she feared too greatly at what they might behold.
Then the voice of Cros came to her, and his words were gentle and soothing.
She felt his hands against her body, the trembling of his fingers.
For a while she listened to his breath, now the only sound that invaded her dark world, and felt the warmth of the tiny creature that was theirs; the thing that, between them, they had made.
At last she summoned her strength of will, and opening her fluttering eyelids, gazed up at Cros, and then down to the baby.
Even before she was aware of its sex, she looked at the tiny hands, matching the fingers to hers.
Weak, upon the verge of faint, Tahi allowed herself a smile of satisfaction; the child was not as Yat, but as she and Cros, and it was a girl.

Yat came to see his mother and his half-sister, curling his too-many-fingers about the day old infant, allowing the mask to slip and reveal, for a fleeting moment, a broad grin.
Tahi watched his hands on her baby and saw, in the shadows about his head, and ever after could not be sure of the truth of it, the horns.
Then, as he returned the naked child to her breast, it came to Tahi, in the moment of his flesh against hers what she must do.

Those of The Elders who opposed Tahi, shrieked in consternation at her decision.
They claimed, in garbled, agitated animation, that she was first his mother and second, an Elder.
They spat into the fires, hawking out their venom.
They raked their fingers across their bellies and thighs, railing and hooting until Cros appeared; taking up the seldom used option of observer at the rear of Elder Councils.
At this, all were subdued for some moments, until the most venerable of the clan, a women of almost fifty-two winters, greyness cloaking her hair, face, body, the whiskers of her chin and under-arms, began to berate in carping, yapped-out barks. She railed and angered them to the point where those half-hearted were moved to her side; not only because of the vehemence of her stand, but also the frailty underlying her every, trembling, indignant word.
Muk, Mother Elder of The Tribe, near consumed in her own efforts, was close to tears, and the wailing, tearing of hair and flesh that marked the only avenue of frustration left to her in order to get her way.
The Mother Elder was nearing that climax, Cros stiffening in anticipation of the tantrum and confrontation to follow, the other Elders preparing to vote on Muk's side; if for no more reason than to pacify her, when a faint movement from seaward distracted several of those present.
In a matter of moments, this was communicated to the congregation, and their attention diverted from the old lady where she knelt drumming her knotty fists upon her thighs, oblivious to the arousal of the rest. Until one of their number lifted an arm, the fingers of the extended hand visibly shaking.
From the waters beyond the fires an apparition loomed; black against the moon-washed ocean, and for a space those who watched were silenced, as even Muk was silenced when she observed them gaping toward what was advancing behind her.
Then realisation dawned upon The Elders and Cros where he sat cradling his daughter in his arms; this was Fire-Yat, who had no business with the gathered, nor had he permission to attend this special meeting of the high, and yet dared again to breach the law of the clan.
But in spite of that, none made protest or rose against him. In truth, they were intrigued as to how he might explain his presence, and of what bearing he could have to dissuade the Elder Mother from her course.
When he gained the circle of light on the seaward side of the fires, all, including Muk who had turned with some effort upon her haunches to stare at him, let out a low, unified and protracted sigh, similar to the drone of the wind through bamboo thickets.
Yat came to them leaning heavily on a driftwood staff, shuffling up the sand in a slow gait that appeared to represent the movement of an injured or exhausted person. Though once revealed by the light, it became apparent to the onlooker's eyes that before them, hunched over, was the weirdly garbed and painted figure of an old man.
His hair was not his hair, but long, glistening strands of seaweed that hung about his head and shoulders, clinging to his arms.
His face and body bore the greyness of age etched out in ash, and he rasped with the coughing of an ancient; swaying, the staff clutched to confront them.
For a long time, or so it seemed to all there afterward, he held their attention with only the merest of movement; each gesture, each slow stirring of his legs animated by the flames flickering across him like the stop-start motion of an early twentieth century film.
Unbeknown to the watchers, Yat 's intuition and guile was at work, transforming him into a master of improvisation. He had planned little further than his disguise, aware of the growing resentment against himself and his vision to take the clan across the waters to new lands beyond. Although he guessed the importance of this head-on conflict, and had determined to somehow maintain his status as Fire-Yat who could not be challenged, even as he challenged the forbidden council of The Elders.
Now, in mime, drawing upon his imagination, and the desperation to hold his audience without allowing them the means to counter-attack, he began to hobble closer to the flames which separated them. Groping blindly forward, the staff poking and prodding until it stirred living coals, so that showers of sparks flew into the night.
Then he tottered his way around the leaping fire to eventually stand, bent and coughing, before Muk.
Muk, still on her knees, lifted her hands; her open mouth made no sound.
Her eyes widened.
This was a first time.
Fire-Yat had never before crossed the boundary of the flames to the side of The Tribe; at least that she could recall. Now he was not beyond them, but joined, however unwillingly on their part, with them. And yet he was not Fire-Yat, but an old man leaning upon a stick.
In the pantomime of their minds, for a time, the youth had ceased to exist, and in his place stood someone else. And this someone else struck deeply at a root memory of their forebears.
Of course they knew it was Fire-Yat, and beneath that layer a youth hardly grown to manhood; but they yearned toward and rebelled against the tangible surface of the presence before them. And thus were torn between actual reality and what was represented; for here, it seemed, was the archetypal Father, the Ancient of Ancients: The Elder of the first born of The Tribe, indeed of all Man.
Yat guessed at their confusion, and grasped the moment. Bending, he took Muk's arm, and unexpectedly sank beside her, the crude staff still anchoring him upright so that his face was tilted down toward hers.
Their eyes locked in an unswerving gaze that set the others rigid, almost paralysed with anticipation and bewilderment. Here was the young mystic, the familiar stranger in their midst, joined in silent battle with the Elder Mother. But no, another vision crowded out all else; here was an old woman, staring into the living face of The Eldest, The Father: He who had Fathered all the World.
Even before Muk lowered her head, her hands still encircled by Yat's too-many-fingers, the watchers were convinced: The Father, the Fire-Yat, the stranger in their midst, had converged into one.
He was not a babe, not a child, a youth, a man, nor an Elder. He was a part of all these; he breathed air and fire and water, he dwelt in the creatures of the earth, in the trees and rocks and mountains, in the valleys and forests, in the food they ate and in the dreams of sleep.
Yat was.
And Yat was victorious.
Without a single word, Yat had overpowered their resistance against him.
The Elders would follow his path, forsaking theirs, for he had convinced them that there lay the way of The Old One. The way they must travel was new to the clan, but old, as laid down by the First-Born: so old that all had forgotten. Now that forgetfulness was to be erased, their eyes and minds made clear again to their coming home: home, somewhere across the ocean which first need be crossed.
Tahi and the others shivered at the prospect; images of floating over the deeps, of terrible unknown creatures, of falling into the sea, mouth and nose filling with gushing water; the rush of death crowding out all else.
Fear, and the resignation that they must soon face that fear, choked them, yet each, afraid to break the sound of night and ocean and the collective trance woven by Yat, remained silent.
It was not until the Old One released Muk from his grasp and slowly arose, propped by the staff, that the watchers allowed the sound of breath to escape their bodies. But the drama had not ended.
Again he hobbled to the far side of the fire, there to turn and stare blankly at them; stooped with the weight of all their tribal past upon his bent shoulders.
Then, the Old One straightened, letting go the staff so that it fell with a rattle into the flames, as he shook off the vestments of seaweed and drew his hand across his face, exposing dark lines through the ashen mask.
Yat's eyes flared in the light, as the image of the Old One dwindled into smoke.
Somehow, his fingers seemed to slough the image, even the memory of that apparition, so that it blurred and slipped between he and the clan, wavering, tugging at their hidden desires ;the deepest imprints hammered across collective regeneration reaching back and down into the morass of eternity behind.
For this was where their conscious and unconscious minds dwelt.
They smelt the future furtively, and prepared each day to meet it, but they revered the past; its mystery, the ancient origins, the old that begat them and their kind.
They guessed at the new, and longed for the old; for the old was secured in a way that could not be altered: and they were confronted by sudden, and conflicting choices that stretched their mental capabilities to a pitch of frenzy.
This may, at least impart some reason as to why Yat's further vaunted daring succeeded, since he glimpsed and was, in fact, a part of it.
The watchers witnessed a transition from old to new within Yat's performance; but still they could not see him as he was.
He was, to them, not young, nor old; but The Being; and in their confused hopes, their only hope.
He, and they, enlarged his image.
It had built over the years, over the seasons of his life, against all that those who opposed him could muster. It fused and culminated in his meeting and overthrow of the last bastion, the old lady Muk.
The Old One was gone.

But the watchers knew that He lived within the Fire-Yat who stood, and walked out of the smoke.

Chapter 9


Australian Page email your comments to the author Exchange critiques on the Lit-Talk board