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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Eleven - Air


The air that Yat sucked into himself and expelled between his teeth came with a great rush.
He stood alone with his thoughts, shading his eyes with his food-hand whilst the sun burned across the wide greenery; a vast, sprawling canopy of jungle before him.
He could see the still fronds of pandanus foliage above the brows of lower palms and tree ferns, the arrow-heads of birds winging away over lush forest, and the far line of the horizon where it merged into sky and sea.
At his back, a day's walk distant, followed The Tribe. On his shoulders, however, lay a heavy weight.
They were again in great peril.
They were, of human kind, not alone. Others had followed, or perhaps had already been there before the coming of Yat's clan. Whichever way, it mattered not: Yat's people were endangered; from within as well as without. Tharta One-eye had seen to that.
Enemy of old as he was, Tharta had never ceased in his continual efforts to undermine Yat's position and the mounting prestige of the Shaman's family.
Slowly and insidiously, Tharta had worked away at those most easily influenced, and especially upon any with a grievance, however trivial, against Cros, Tahi, Cun or Yat.
Secretly, over time, he had won a growing number to him; young men, a handful of women and several Elders, who saw their power and position waning.
And eventually there were enough dissenters for Tharta to openly declare himself in opposition: thus causing an immediate division amongst the clan.
When the two factions met headlong in a wild debate that descended swiftly into little more than the snarling of pack animals eager to tear at each other's throats, the split was complete.
Even Yat's mystical influence could not dissuade the enraged, who simply refused to hear anything other than their own surfaced resentments: the old ways gnawed relentlessly at them, and the repressed grudges over the lost seasons in their birth lands engendered a great bitterness that swept away all reason. At the point of internal uprising Tharta, dwelling on the moment and the hysteria, called together those who would follow him; and in the space of a single afternoon they departed. Fully one third of the clan, men dragging unwilling women and children, as well as those eager to go, hefted their meagre belongings across brown backs and set off; casting angry scowls at those who remained loyal to Yat. With the passing of these folk, Yat's stature began to suffer in the eyes and hearts of the faithful.
The truly steadfast few were unmoved by Tharta's wrongful actions, but there were others who eagerly awaited Yat's terrible response and when it did not come, wavered uncertainly.
Later, a sudden attack upon their camp provoked an outraged reaction, so that those set upon fought back ferociously; half prepared for some hostility initiated by Tharta. It was only in the aftermath of repelling the foe that Yat's people realised otherwise; the dead faces beneath the smeared clay and coloured feathers were none ever seen before, though their own dead were well known to them, and numbered more.
Yat desired it differently, but it was clear to him that once again his folk must move on or be overtaken and swallowed up by slavery or death.
So he faced the unknown, a day's journey ahead of those who believed, in greater and lesser degrees, in his ability to lead them to safety and a peaceful existence.
The banteng horns dangled from the six fingers of his faecal hand, the other shaded his brow as he peered toward the horizon; more water to cross. Yet did land lie upon the far side?
That they must make the passage he was certain, but would the world finally end?
Was there an edge to his universe?
Yat, shaman of The Tribe, could only guess; as might any other mortal of that time.
Turning about, he began the arduous trek back, hoping that Cros and his remaining men had managed their people over the long lengths of the earth between without further danger.
The following day, as the sun worked into the west, he came to the clan where they struggled, bone-weary and downcast, through tracts of tearing, grasping, clinging creepers amid mottled shafts of light thrown down between fringed greenery soaring above.
Most of the men, including Cros, were at the rear protecting the children, women and Elders in their flight, and it was clear that they had suffered hardship and loss from recent attacks.
Due to Yat's past influence, they hauled the sick and wounded along, slowing and encumbering them; and with a gasp of dismay and consternation he saw the foolishness of this weighed and balanced against the pang of primitive pity that beat and welled inside his fragile being.
Coming amongst them, besieged by begging questions and pawing hands, Yat was faced with the most terrible decision of his life; the welfare of the clan, or the survival of the individual.
The Tribe was close to destruction; blindly following his ideals and directions whilst their enemies struck at them relentlessly and without mercy.
Cun and those he valued most were at risk.
The worst injured, the weakest, hampered them in travel.
At any time, Tharta, or an unseen, unknown foe might fall upon them.
A darkness seemed to be closing about Yat's nuclear world.

They died soon after he slit their gullets, their lives pumping away into the earth, their mouths gulping air that could not save them.
There were not many, but more than enough.
They were cut.
And Yat was responsible.
A boy-man, sixteen of year-turning, and he alone murdered them: for the good of The Tribe.
Justification for his actions, had that been required, was impossible in the light of his earlier stance. He killed, where once he had striven to save.
The Tribe, what left of it, stood appalled; even as they were used to sudden and violent death.
Yat bore the burden as a beast of labour, as an entity without choice; but he knew that he had entered upon a path that could never be retraced.
Again he walked apart, even in Cun's eyes; and also in the averted, sullen, beaten eyes, of his clan. Yat's power loomed as a fearsome thing, uncontrollable, even as they watched him retching out the contents of his stomach after the completion of this dreadful task.
The Shaman moved on in the levels of power over those who bowed to him.
Of them he asked and received nothing.

When he was recovered enough to wash away the blood and gore that spattered his arms and body, he set about the business of burial alone, digging into the loose soil like some burrowing creature bent on scratching out a vast underground home. Eventually others joined him, working away until the pit was excavated; and there the dead were placed, covered over with rotting leaves and vegetation.
This completed, Yat signalled his intentions, and clutching at his pain-ridden gut, set off,
uncertain of those who would still follow him.
At this turning point, there were many at his back who hesitated, wavering; some in a state of unspeakable shock at the swift, cruel disposal of their own flesh and blood, though only recently removed from barbaric practices the equal or worse.
Ironically, Yat's blind groping toward the process of civilising himself and his people had rebounded.
But there still remained amongst them all the very human thrust toward life and self-preservation.
To abandon Yat was to throw themselves at the feet of the unknown enemy, or at best Tharta one-eye and his followers, if indeed they still survived.
In the end, wild-eyed and whimpering, the remainder of The Tribe struggled after him; a hopelessness of never-return burnt into their every straining muscle and sinew.
Here was commitment without succour. Pledge, without any certainty.
They followed in the hollow hope that the mad, beast-horn carrier Shaman might lead them to a land of safe hunting and the food that was life, until life was no more.
Yat stumbled through the sun-speckled undergrowth; sick in mind and body, seeking release from his own doings and the survival of his people.

As they made their way into territory that appeared empty of human habitation, and the pursuit of the enemy behind fell away, the warriors, freed in part from their rearguard action, managed to supplement the clan's meagre diet with the spoils of kill.
Man, now long beyond the age of vegetarian, required meat and the essential nutrients supplied.
Ahead of the hunters, a variety of monkeys teemed through the hanging foliage of jungle; lemurs and tarsiers, birds, many colourful and drab, diminutive deer, tiny, timid creatures, never before seen, fell to their spears, clubs and throwing sticks.

By the time they reached the coast, Yat's people were again full-bellied, their spirits uplifted after deprivation, and their minds dulled to the terrific events of the past.
In their own deliverance, they chose to ignore any memory that caused pain or aggravation, and instead relied upon the present; renewal, strength, gut filling, and denial.
The effect was to blot out, as much as possible, not only their close and distant history, but to again invest faith in their spiritual leader; He, Risen from the Dead, Taker of Life, Giver of Life, Who walked before them.
On the boundary of earth and water, they realised, before it was asked of them, that a further crossing of the great sea was to come; but now they were willing, since this was inevitably the way.
Yat, allowing himself only the sleep of exhaustion and urging Cun to wake him after the shortest periods through each night, was however plagued by dreams that shattered every chance of recovery to both his body and senses.
The dreams riddled his waking consciousness with doubt and remorse; though Yat knew not such emotions well enough to do more than wrestle with each daily allotment and each nightly journey, whereby he became a helpless victim to the demons within himself.
The dreams were violent.
His was the throat cut open.
His was the blood that flowed.
His was the pit into which he was thrown.
The suffocation of blood and earth banked up over his mouth and nose and eyes.
The thudding of soil filled his ears.
He saw his own fingers clawing at the earth to keep the steady, beating flow of it from covering him completely. And in brief, flickering moments that were the twitching of his eyelids, he saw the grinning skull-masks of faces he had known: his father Banta, Banji the clan leader, Muk the Elder woman and many, many more, including those who had died by his own hand.
His own six-fingered hand; the faecal hand that now turned against him, tearing at his face whilst he fought to hold it off, twisting and gasping. The blood rushing down his throat drowning him, his food-hand clutching wildly, vainly, to beat against the moist, foul-smelling gobs of forest refuse pouring down over him.
In his dreams he cried, and the blood streamed from his eyes turning the soil to red mud.
He saw this through the hollow eyes of the others gathered around and above him whilst they lifted on high the banteng horns and fire crackled at the margins of the pit.
Yat was Fire, and Fire was Yat: the fire of blood, the fire of earth and air and water.
Through the fire and the agony of throat-slitted looming death Yat screamed.
But to Cun, who watched over him, the scream was merely a deep sigh, a momentary grimace, a singular, involuntary convulsion, sinking away into short breaths and inaudible mutterings. Eventually, she learned to arouse him from these nightmares with the touch of her body, crooning to him as if he were her baby; and when he awoke from these gripping, unrelenting states, Yat thanked her with nothing more than the hunted look in his haunted eyes.
No simple language such as they possessed could express his relief at the release from his dreams, and certainly no simple language could formulate his torment at the realisation of waking truth.
What Yat had become, what he had done, was inescapable: Fire-Yat, Yat-Fire; and now the fire seared deeply into his living being.
Whether he knew it or not, Yat had aged far beyond his actual year span.

The clan camped and hunted and fished whilst their preparation for the sea crossing progressed; again rafts began to take shape at the water's edge.
Ever wary, Cros kept the vigil with Kari and several of the older children whilst the others worked through the days. By night, sentries were posted and relieved at intervals until dawn's first glimmer, whence The Tribe stirred to the daily toil, and occasionally on clear mornings the tantalising glimpse of what appeared to be the faint smudges of twin mountains at the furthest edge of the horizon.
And though this sight heartened them and kept them at their tasks, the people avoided the notion of the actual voyage and its attendant hardships and concentrated instead upon their landfall and escape from the enemy, who yet lurked in the northern forest. In their vulnerable position, with the sea at their backs, Cros kept them as prepared as was possible for any sudden attack, splitting the menfolk between hunting, tree cutting and patrolling the outer margins of the camp beneath the jungle fringes.
Yat however had become absorbed with improvements to his primitive craft. He directed logs to be placed cross-wise over the initial frames so that raised sections allowed areas for dry sleeping, packed the gaps of the keel with bark and rushes, and added logs around the perimeters to create low sides against the worst of the swell.
The entire project took many days, and initially went unhindered, but toward the end their foe appeared, at first in small number as roving bands of hunters prepared to risk themselves for what they might plunder. Yet eventually these attacks became ferocious and numerous to the extent that Cros and the defenders were sorely pressed to repel them.
At this, Yat's people were doubly afraid, since now they believed that if any of their number sustained serious wounds their own shaman would take it upon himself to end their lives.
So, when Kari was brought in with a dreadful gash across his chest the clan were utterly confounded when Yat tended the man with the greatest of care.
Of course Yat acted on the basis of his own logic. F or in flight the injured hampered the safety of the entire group, whilst on the boundary of the ocean there could be no flight until the rafts were completed, and secretly he was relieved to fight death rather than to administer it. This, to the people, was a complex issue, though his healing skills tempered their anxieties as Yat strove to save Kari and any others who fell at the hand of the enemy.
Indeed Kari began to show signs of recovery by the time the clan took to the rafts early one morning during a sudden raid in which Cros was clubbed, in the hand to hand fighting on the beach.
He survived only because of Yat's intervention, dragging him away to the shallows where others hauled them both on board the last craft to depart.
The attack continued as the fiercely bedecked warriors splashed into the sea in pursuit, and was only broken off when a terrible intruder swept amongst them, breaking the surface with a flash of dark fins and grinning jaws. Rows of razor-teeth cutting a man completely in half with one swift motion, before carrying another under the water in a welter of flailing arms and piercing screams.
The Tribe heaved away, their whited eyes watching the swirls of blood and trailing bubbles streaking their slow-moving wake, the enemy frantically struggling back to shore as more of the giant ocean monsters swarmed to the scent of death.
As Yat's clan poled and paddled the rafts toward deeper water and the land fell astern, they saw their foe gather at the margins of the sea, there to set up a fading clamour, whilst the great creatures of the depths churned the waves to a reddened foam.

Again, Yat's people suffered during the days and nights at sea.
On the third morning, by first light, they peered anxiously ahead and then all about their craft, but there was nothing: no land on any of that wide circle of horizon.
Panic rose from gut to throat like heaved up bile: the rafts, in ragged grouping, pulled slowly together upon a windless, strangely becalmed ocean.
It was at this time that Yat was struck by an insane notion; so insane that he dismissed it from his mind almost at once.
What he needed was a tree; a tall tree in the middle of the ocean that he could climb in order to see further, as he might on land.
Much later, that glimmer of an idea returned, and he wondered about it; could a tree, hewn of its branches, be somehow set upright on a raft?
How could this be done?
But at that initial blind moment of panic, he was too distressed to do more than wildly conjure the vision before passing on to search his extremely limited knowledge of sea-faring in an attempt to find the hidden land beyond.
During late afternoon of the following day, the elusive land appeared, unfolding in brief glimpses atop the peaks of waves driven by a sudden, gusting squall.
By then the rafts were on a course that would have taken them south-west of the island group, and the pull of the swelling ocean made it extremely difficult and hazardous to divert the craft as they plunged into troughs between the surging waves. But in truth it was those same treacherous combers, hoisting the rafts upon their perilous summits, that saved them; these dizzying heights were the tree that Yat had half foreseen as the answer.
Days later, after toil that left the rafters exhausted, they reached the shallows where the ocean creamed and crashed upon a rocky shingle.
If an enemy had risen before them, they could not have defended themselves.
Two of the rafts had broken up completely and the remaining three were nothing more than loosely bound packs of floating logs, close to tearing apart after constant buffeting.
With the inclusion of those who had abandoned the main body, at the instigation of Tharta One-eye, before the crossing, and considerable losses at the hands of the enemy, and through sea sickness, dehydration and drowning, The Tribe had diminished by more than half.
Strangely, the survivors found little to complain about; they were the living, their enemies were an ocean away, and Yat, though pushed to the threshold of endurance, went about his work, securing, aiding and providing where he could; both physically and spiritually.
Kari, now able to get about again, took it upon himself to lead the strongest of the men whilst Cros recovered from his wounds and the rigours of exposure, tended by Tahi.
Ban, their daughter, had broken her arm, and Yat set about splinting the tiny limb with strips of bark and crude slips of sapling, amidst his half-sister's agonised moaning.

And, when Fire-Yat appeared out of the smoke of their first night fire he instilled them again with strength: the strength of the flames, of the uplifted banteng horns, and the growth inherent within themselves.
Though he danced, close to exhaustion, he reinvigorated his own mind and body, and somewhere in the depths of his being Yat welcomed again Cun's approval; she who once more warmed to his embrace and did not shun him from her bed.
And so the people made a new place for themselves beneath the frowning twin-peaks of their new land, and began to explore its hidden interior with growing confidence.
The island itself proved larger than those they had previously dwelt upon, and boasted a multitudinous population of known and never before encountered creatures.
There were monkeys of various tribes, lemurs and other small marsupials running on all fours, whilst some moved swiftly in an erect posture, leaping forward, balanced by long tails.
And there were animals half the height of a man; bulky and formidable, with blunted snouts and vicious claws that were capable of raking an unwary intruder.
In the open spaces below the mountains, Yat's folk encountered enormous, flightless birds with great bony beaks and powerful legs that carried their huge frames effortlessly at astonishing speeds.
On the coast, in the sea-encroaching estuaries and along the fresh water rivers they chanced upon giant turtles, sea-snakes, massive lizards and terrifying horn-plated dwellers of land and water, that to modern eyes might have represented the early forms of crocodilian reptiles.
Insects, often larger than a man's hand, hummed and vibrated through the soaring forests.
The air itself, sometimes thick with swarms of biting flies, was moisture laden, and periodically rain fell for days without relief.
No branch and bark structure could stay these ongoing drenchings, and where there were no convenient caves the clan was forced to eat, sleep and hunt in the downpour.
On occasion, they took refuge within the rotted out boles of fantastically twisted trees, so large as to accommodate a family in each.
There, modest fires, enough at least as to allow protection from anything that lurked in the dark, were maintained; fed by fuel dried out beneath the overhanging canopy.
On these nights, whilst the flames seared and spat, and smoke wafted in to blind and choke those crouched motionless together, the clan was cut off into smaller units; each isolated from the rest, much as had been their early ancestors, and a brooding feeling of aloneness gripped them.
However, typical of their stoic disposition and a vague, collective memory of similar past events, they waited out the rains; their body weight and energy levels lowering upon a depleted diet dredged from the mud and undergrowth by day under the gloom of continuous grey cloud.
When finally the sky cleared and sunlight shafted through the shutters of the jungle, Yat's people emerged somewhat emaciated, into mists vaporising from the dank forest floor.
Here was air that could be seen swirling between the shadowy forms of ancient trees; trees that appeared to be moving in some form of undulating manner, as if possessing a life force of their own.
Perhaps, darkly wondered one or two of The Elders, the trees were more than they seemed.
Perhaps they contained a spark of other living things, or at least of things that had been alive.
Such random thoughts were swiftly transferred from the depths of the subconscious to the conscious, and transformed into positive feelings, almost without question.
They prompted and stimulated faculties of imagination and superstition, as did dreams and visions, and there was a serious motive behind such workings of The Elder mind.
This was the desire to attract and command attention and approval from those who eagerly listened and sought deeper meaning of things mysterious thus conveyed to them.
And this factor played an important part in the forging of legend and myth out of illusion and imagery that was grist to the teller's mill; and the tellers, in so creating, exacted a price in the form of power over the listener.
There was nothing new in this; men and women had gradually built upon the premise from much earlier times, and their only limitation was the ability and range of the mind's perception and experience, actual or imagined.
Thus a situation, new or unusual, might call up a further extension of embroidery and embellishment, and those most adept would seize upon and enlarge such event to their own advantage.
The Elders of Yat's clan knew and often played on this, if not collectively as a secret key toward the respect they felt was their due, than by individual intuition alone.
Yat too, was well able to appreciate this manipulation of natural phenomena, and had himself used fire in a way that maintained and developed his own status. But in the drifting mists that appeared to endow the forest with real movement he saw further than those who merely swooped upon the notion that trees might be possessed of life other than their own.
His vision was not so much concerned with the essence of beings, the spirits of men perhaps, in the long ago. But with something prompted by his own experience upon the mountains above his cave when he was no more than a child filled with what others considered a madness which set him apart on the path toward shamanism.

He was alone in the forest, lying across the trunk of a fallen giant where the creeping tendrils of green moss and lichens and the mulch of a thousand years had begun the process of decomposition that would eventually reclaim every fibre of rotting timber beneath him.
He strained his ears, listening to the sound of the wind, hoping to catch some last tremble in the dead wood, some faint heave in the earth, wrestling with what else he now perceived. Yat was Fire, but fire had a life of its own, and at last he saw that water and earth too had life: they were not constant, they moved as did the creatures in and upon them.
And he recalled his time alone on the mountain and the strange feeling that had crept over him as he gazed up at the expanse of sky above.
And he realised that it too was alive, that creatures flew upon its breath, for he had seen air, as if for the first time, in the rising mists, and knew it as a tangible entity. Here again, in a most primitive logic, he advanced one step beyond his own people; and it was thinking of this kind that would elevate man in the distant future to greater heights.

Chapter 12


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