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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Fifteen - Death

Much had been accomplished in Yat's latter years, considering the slowness of change characteristic of those times. Indeed, to modern Man, living in the twenty-first century and beyond, where acceleration of technology is under constant revision of progress, each next step superseded at breakneck speed, the remote epoch of his ancestor's advancement seems almost imperceptible. Now, Man is less concerned with the setting up and structure of societies, their rules and laws and the fundamentals of survival. The aspiration toward power over others, domination by wealth and force, in one way or another, has been magnified far and beyond the simple ideals of early, roaming folk. Folk who sought to come to grips with an earth that then held only the oceans as boundaries and the most inhospitable regions as constraints. Territories and borders, human made, were but the faintest of notions in the primitive mind of the nomad. And these were eventually to be defined and governed by family and tribal needs as groups splintered away to form more and more independent units, until hunting grounds of migratory animals and birds became coveted areas to be protected against invaders.

In the new country of the Ganti, possession of wide tracts of land was of no consequence. Practically it was absurd; small groups of hunter-gatherers could not protect borders in a climate where constant movement was a requirement of day to day living. And invasion by others held almost no threat, for the others were still preoccupied with their own fundamental existence. Therefore, the need to draw lines amongst inhabitants diverging over vast areas was a concept that awaited far in the future, when tradition and the sacred nature of familiar sites, returned to over and again, had been established.

In Yat 's time, the three divisions of his original tribe were intent upon survival. They were few in number, slow to enlarge against a steady mortality rate, and ever aware of the presence of natural dangers, as well as of their own kind. Whilst they remained, more or less, in the same districts the possibilities of conflict, however, continued. Individual animosity aroused by abduction, revenge reprisals and later murder, developed into feuds that left the groups little hope of reconciliation. Yat kept his people on the move whenever possible and steered them away from provocation by example, for as he viewed it they were still part of the surviving group from across the seas, and the land was wide enough to avoid confrontations. The breakaways were less prudent, and over time came into contact by accident or on purpose, and much malicious damage was done.

Eventually, this blood feuding depleted their strength and numbers to the point where the demarcation of country was not so much enforced as an ever-expanding area was added to their horizons. In other words, the three now separate tribes put as much distance between each other as was needful, so that more and more tracts of the unknown were covered by their wanderings. But their exploration, discoveries and the mapping of these broadening regions were all stored in the minds and memories of the nomads, since they had no other way of setting such information down; nor indeed did they desire to do so. What the various peoples observed and where they roamed became of worth only to them; they carried this knowledge with them, feeding it from eldest to youngest as if it were food and water, life and death: and in many instances, that is what it became. The haunts of game, and the locations of water sources, over the thousands of years, were to be of inestimable importance to successive generations of hunter-gatherers in a country where the domestication of wild animals and the cultivation of natural flora were unlikely as durable and practical ventures. Indeed, whilst food and water were both plentiful enough to come by, it simply never occurred to these peoples to do more than harvest it on the move, as they had so done since time immemorial. In many respects they were living in a garden of Eden, where enemies were few, though none the less dangerous, and the climate was stable and well within the limits of Man's endurance. What was difficult for Yat's folk, and those of the other estranged tribes, was the heightened sense of isolation, due in part to separation from each other, but mainly engendered by the land itself.

The country was of an immensity which held no parallel in the minds and memories of these nomads; the open plains and silent ranges of distant mountains the heavy wooded forests , the wide tracts of impassable swamps, steep chasms and gorges all added to a sombre mood that enveloped them, dwarfing the vision of themselves against an almost incomprehensible background. To say that they walked in awe of these ever enlarging regions was an understatement. The loneliness and the grandeur, the emptiness and the terror that the land evoked were conditions that only thousands of years of occupation could erode. In this instance, those first arrivals felt the full impact of unbounded horizons, and it was not to be until Man had grown into the land and the land into Him that an essential sense of belonging, a bonding and an affinity was to be formed. This indeed was to come, but it would be long in the coming. Eventually, the first inhabitants, those at least to survive beyond the initial stages of confrontation, assimilation and adaptation to the environment, acclimatised themselves to an acceptance of the space surrounding them and to the knowledge that they were totally alone. Once this was achieved, and it was a transition of time and complex human emotions that brought it about, the immigrants were free to view themselves as sole possessors and to make certain adjustments to the landscape, for both practical and psychological reasons.

In the fullness of passing generations, they did this with fire. At first as an act of game flushing and entrapment, but later, apart from its use in warfare, as an act of re-creation. That is to say, regrowth and renewal, transforming the old face of a bygone era to that of something endowed with the freshness and vigour of their own personality and vitality. In such a manner, the possessors came to stamp the land as theirs: to mark it with their power and to define its look. This of course was not at first done intentionally nor later as some kind of general policy across the length and breadth of the vast continent, but rather as a growing but localised establishment of ownership, and too perhaps, conquest. They built no monuments, no roads, they erected no walls or dams or permanent abodes; and yet they sculptured their surroundings in a way natural and logical to their thinking.

To say that Yat was an instigator of such use of fire would be an over-simplification. It is true that fire, and before they were lost to the sea the banteng horns, had become symbols of his station as shaman. And that fire continued to play its part, in ritual form, associated with his standing and reputation; but to go further than his influence upon those other than his own clan would, in all probability, be an exaggeration. More likely is it that fire itself assumed greater importance. Not only as a practical tool, a comfort and protection against the menace of night, nor even in an increased spiritual awareness, yet as a formidable implement of power over the elements and an environment that initially ruled Man and which Man sought to overthrow. Fire, in this capacity, evolved from limited usage over the thousands of years, along with those who wielded it, into a force of Man 's reckoning with nature.

If Yat, in those earliest of times, had an influence on the thinking of his people regarding such matter, it was most likely secondary to immediate considerations such as the ordering and continuity of their place and standing in the bewildering patterns unfolding before them.

To this end, not only did he endow his people with a name and a totem to commemorate that naming, but also he set about the business of naming and, in the long run, of marking those places deemed by the Ganti of especial importance. The naming of springs, waterways and falls, and of areas where vegetation or game was plentiful was practical in the extreme. As was that of places suitable for habitation such as caves and sheltering overhangs. But there were other locations amongst the many they chanced upon where Yat and his people felt some compulsion to do more than simply camp for a time or pass by without leaving a statement of their presence. Apart from caves and the like, there were winding gorges and deep, shaded ravines amongst the mysterious mountains, tall cliffs rearing out of the wooded slopes strange formations of weathered stone and great rents and fissures in the earth's surface. These natural wonders, some beautiful in their grandeur and solitude, others terrible in their silence and menace, prompted the shaman and, in turn followers of like aptitude to express themselves in the only medium known and suitable for the times. These early applications of charcoal and ochres were, at best, semi-permanent, depending upon conditions such as weathering and exposure to light ; though later they were reworked or overworked by successive artists, often to the point where the original meanings became distorted or lost in entirety.

For Yat and the Ganti however, their attempts represented more than mere signs of presence, or even warnings of recent occupation; they reflected instead a frightened awareness of the land, the flora and fauna, the growing feel within of the country, its colour and contour. In effect they were grappling with their own observations and reactions and emotional tensions in a manner that gave concrete form to this abstract turmoil. And yet, unknowingly, they were beginning the process of a recording system that would echo on through thousands of years of undisturbed occupation. In those first hesitant works of line and representation, often achieved by the light of fire, lay the essence of mythology, which was to evolve and to gratify and to formulate the cultures of the peoples to follow.

As the Ganti settled into a routine established by the passage of years, Yat was able to devote more time to leisure and various activities involving his children and those of the clan. Now older, he left the ordering of the men to Tharta, and concentrated on the young, gaining pleasure from his efforts at teaching through observation, experiment and the knowledge he had acquired since the days of his own childhood. But even so, he did not abandon his role as shaman; continuing the rituals of healing and well-being that had become an essential part of his peoples' existence. On special occasions, such as the birth of new life or the abundance of food after a successful hunt, Yat still danced. And when the rare mood took him, he would bring forth the totem of the Ganti and weave tales of how once living beings had been turned into the rocks of the land. And the watchers would settle close to the comforting warmth of their fires, muttering in hushed tones at the shaman's magic and the power in the bone of the Mighty Hunter.

Sunset and sunrise, day followed day through the seasons as the cycle of natural events unfolded and the Ganti grew, imperceptibly, into the bone of the land. Yat, alone of them held, or was withheld, from such slow, easy progression.

When the clan camped at a site and the things that must be done were done; water fetched, fires lit, meals for hungry children, and hunters returned, in preparation, Yat would slip away to be by himself. And in that aloneness, when the sun glimmered toward night, he would stand motionless, or rest his back against a tree, peering out into the gathering dusk, listening to the fading commotion of the birds. Seeing, and not seeing as the flickering images of the day and the days before flickered through his mind. Often the images were confused, or rather, disjointed; they came and went like scraps of time, caught and held, frozen, fragmented painful. They were like pinpoints of fire touching somewhere deep within him. They were the ghosts of his life and of the past. True, there were memories that gave him a measure of comfort, of satisfaction even: some belonged in his childhood and youth, but these were not achieved without cost to himself, and to the way in which he had fashioned his early days. He had taken and for that he had given. It had been a path he had chosen to walk alone: almost always alone, except for the few. There had been his parents Banta and Tahi, Cun his woman, and his children Jinti and Tahni-Yat, and there was One-eye Tharta; his enemy of youth, his rival, bondman, and later, finally, his friend; even if both had resisted that friendship over all the sun turnings between.

But such contemplation came with difficulty to Yat. The solitary part of his being was too great, too overwhelming to allow the warmth of humanity more than a fleeting moment; a bird seeking the sunlight, a flash of colour in the sky as the shadows close; a last ripple of reflection on the dark, quiet waters.

Yet there was still a yearning inside him something... Just beyond vision, beyond reach. Nothing. Only the ache of it, of the emptiness: the void it should have filled. Perhaps it was simply that every human being he had ever known had been different to him, and their difference was the same, each to the other. They were together in their lives, eating, breathing, bearing, hunting, fighting, sleeping, dying. He, Yat the Shaman, was the outsider: unwilling to step through the veil of shadow, to divest himself of the mask: trapped within the prison of his making. Trapped, triumphant, isolated: unable to breach the barrier between. Maybe it was that he guessed at things far and above the imaginings of those about him and dared where others did not. But that he failed in the fundamental ability required to reach out for his fellow man and to receive in return that which everyone else took so easily for granted. He was simply not, and had never been, equipped for the bonding relationships of his people. It was a tragedy. A very human tragedy; repeated down the thousands of years from Man's first emergence to Yat's time and beyond; and it was never to be resolved by those of his ilk.

For Yat, there was only a kind of resignation; the kind of resignation that is borne out of the limbo of frustration and despair. It was impossible for him to find answers to the riddles, when he had no concept that the riddles existed. The chameleon now wore too many coats of changing colour; too many layers for even Yat to begin to unravel. Perhaps he saw, in the fragments of the memories of his mind, that there was no going back, that he was growing onward, and that the irretrievable was lost in the past. And in his Shaman's helplessness, he pondered fleetingly, though often, at the fragments of those memories. Why, he wondered, did his father Banta have to die? Why Ban, his sister? Why death at all?' And why had Cros died without showing sign that death was near? Cros; growing older, grey bearded, no longer the Warrior-leader, though still strong enough... Why had he gone to sleep one night with Tahi at his side and in the dawn...

Tahi came to Yat. Both then, on the morning of the death of Cros, and over again in Yat's eyes as they stared, empty of the sun's descent into the purple mists; and he saw again the emptiness and the loss within her own eyes. And he felt the pang, and the life and death struggle which was all of his mother; of her own birth and of the birth of himself. And the rattling out of her life at the end, when Banta was long gone beneath the many feet of the horned bantengs. And when Ban had been taken by the snake, and Cros had not told that he would never rise in the morning... In the morning of the Clan Mother's ending. Suddenly, briefly, Tahi had aged, become fragile. Her last days had embered away: flickering, glowing, toward night... In his memories of her, of his mother, Yat often attempted to capture the final vestiges. To suck up the vital fluidity of her flesh and presence: of the creature he had grown within and suckled upon, and his hands trembled and the pain in his throat ached until his teeth bit into his tongue. And then it was all gone. The white half -moon hung amidst a blaze of stars as the night, and all of the many nights of solitude, came, and softly dwindled.

Through the years, events large and small transpired both within and without the Ganti clan; some had little bearing and as such were not worthy of note; others however altered the course of individuals and sometimes the fate of whole peoples. One incident in particular occurred which had a direct bearing on Yat and his image as shaman, not only in the eyes of the Ganti but in those of other folk. This concerned the death of Gan, the rebel leader of the original breakaway group. His body was discovered by his kinsmen lying at the foot of a tall precipice amongst a scattering of animal bones. They found him late one afternoon when he failed to return to camp after setting out alone in the morning. It had been a bright sunny day and no rain had fallen for many days proceeding. The discovery caused much grieving amongst those of his clan at first, but later, when the body was covered in a shallow grave some began to speculate as to how Can had come to die in such a manner. Why had he wandered off alone? Did he lose his footing and fall? Was he pushed? Or did something make him jump? His followers wavered for a considerable time, searching for an explanation that seemed plausible in their minds. An accident was possible, though unlikely for a man of Gan's agility and experience; and in any event there had been no reason for him to go to such a place. Suicide was unthinkable, indeed practically unknown for men of that time. Murder? By who? There had been no sign of struggle or of any other person. Unless there had been no struggle and Gan was made to jump without physical force. Who could command such power and who would wish him dead?

The suspicions festered in the thoughts of Gan 's people, and it was not too long before they reached a conclusion. Yat of the Ganti was the logical choice. He was the shaman. He held the power of the Bone Folk in his too-many fingers. Gan's name meant bone and he was found amongst them. Yat had good reason to desire Gan's death, even after many years had passed, for had not Gan caused the break amongst the peoples in the first place, and the death of Kari? Here then, asserted Gan's followers, was the payback; and in certainty the women and children of the band shivered about their campfires and avoided even the mention of this awesome deed.

When word of this reached Yat as it was bound to do sooner or later, he neither denied nor confirmed the allegations. How Gan had met his end Yat had no idea, though the temptation to take the credit for Gan's death was enticing and yet the shaman, in his cunning way, guessed that to say nothing was better. By implication and silence, Yat was content to let the matter simmer, and to draw from it further use for his own benefit.

In that way, even his family remained uncertain, if somewhat singled out to bask in the aura of the shaman; and in this they took full advantage. As did the Ganti people as a whole, for here was power to them all, over those who had wronged them in the past. However, they were mindful of reprisal or retaliations for a long time afterward; perhaps awaiting the emergence of a shaman to rival Yat, but this did not eventuate. The other clans kept their distance although they did not forget. Nor could they, for this incident was to form a part of the ongoing build-up of lore and myth, and more specifically, of association with the witchdoctor and his trappings of powers beyond comprehension that were later to coalesce into the images of the spirit world. Eventually, certain elements would be selected from the tale, shorn of unwanted details, and these over long time were destined for perpetuity; the shaman, the bone, the death, and the invisible beings called upon to render such death. Here, in this one instance, amongst many that were to follow, and many more that had already transpired in a past however sundered by geographical location and the distance of memory, again lay the primary roots of a people's beliefs in formation. For Yat the shaman, as for his blood after him, there was the instant of life. For the immigrants to the lonely country, there was the future of generations to come. As for Gan's death, and indeed that of Cros, natural cause in the form of heart failure had dealt an end to their lives; and certainly none then could have foreseen or diagnosed such a condition in two apparently healthy men.

Yat, outwardly stoic in his disposition, was not unaffected by the reputation grown and growing about him. He had, in his time, saved lives, and he had killed. He had felt the quickening power at the moment before, and on the stroke of death and the sickening wrench of his doing, and the bloody feel of it in his six-fingered hands whilst he watched the helpless die. Strangely, for folk of those times, he had never killed in anger, nor for the pure pleasure derived from the act. In truth he had seldom killed any living creature. The need to kill, to fulfil an inner desire of the predatory hunter over its prey, was absent. And thus, the deaths of his people; either directly or indirectly as a result of his actions, preoccupied him. Morbidly weighting his mind, so that death itself lurked as a spectre somewhere beyond range of his waking moments, in the shadows cast at noon, or the gloomy days of cloud and rain, or the darkness at his back. And in the nights, during sleep, he was troubled, and more often than not, could find no respite. Older, the straggle of beard greying to white; slowly, slowly becoming stooped and arthritic, he hobbled toward each new day and the pleasure of the warmth of the sun. Tahni, his son, also gave him pleasure, and security of a kind, for he saw in him a part of himself. That was the part he had never been able to display; tactile, gregarious, easy going, yet respected for the qualities of open affection, selflessness and the eagerness to help any in need, whilst still commanding the attention of peers and elders alike. As Tahni grew to manhood, Yat passed on to him everything of value he could remember; everything garnered from the store of his own experiences of nature, healing and the secrets of his inner shaman-self. To the clan it was a natural progression, expected and awaited that Tahni would become as his father, much as it was with Tharta's eldest son; the first to assume the mantle of Shaman and the second that of Warrior Leader. Jinti, Cun and Yat's daughter, too would find her place amongst The Elders, and perhaps eventually attain the heights of Elder Mother.

But these were things of the future, the seldom considered future of Yat's world, and the world beyond Yat's existence. Sometimes, in his moments of quiet solitude, the shaman thought on these things; reflecting with a curious admixture of pride and foreboding, then put them away from him. It was safer to dwell in the present, than to dwell overlong upon the past, or the mystery of the future.

Cun and Yat were comfortable enough with each other, and she was content with her life: in all the small matters of the daily round and the larger trials and dangers of their new country. She had adapted, in many ways, with greater ease than most of her female counterparts; enjoying the few privileges of shaman's wife and the responsibilities thus entailed. Age, and the process of aging through the harshness of the seasons, had altered her body without dimming her spirit. She bore herself well, and though declining Elder status in order to continue her special position, remained on good terms with the Ganti Elder women. Especially Tharta's wife Mishfa: who also had managed assimilation from captive alien to membership of The Elders with a poise that was singular and in some ways remarkable. She, as with Cun, exhibited qualities of resilience and fortitude, and in both cases, of the simple affections that bonded humans, collectively and individually, together. Cun and Mishfa were aware enough to know their place, and to maintain it to the end. Life, for them, with its companion hardships, had been better than they could reasonably have expected. Probably that was so, even for Yat.

But time drew on. Tharta One-eye was now an old, grey haired man, hobbling on thin shanks. Mishfa, his woman and the mother of five, three still living, had passed her bearing years and grown feeble. Cun and Yat's children were become of an age where the leadership of their people had fallen to they and those they had chosen. Little by little, Yat's role as shaman and spiritual voice of the Ganti receded. For the most part, he and Cun contented themselves in the warmth of the days with each other; their eyes sometimes misted over with what might have been satisfaction, even joy at the clan's prosperity and the achievements of their own offspring. The seasons rose and fell like the heart-swelling throb of the earth, and more and more, Yat found himself listening to that continual chord upon which all life, all sound and smell and touch and taste and sight played. Gradually, had he known it, he was drifting into his position: his place in time.

Tharta One-eye was honoured by the Ganti and laid to rest at the foot of a range of mountains glowing purple-gold in the sunset at the end of a cloudless day. Through a haze of memories that stretched across a lifetime, Yat found himself weeping for the man, the enemy he had once blinded, who had redeemed himself to become not only a leader, but the closest human, outside of family, that the shaman could have borne.

Mishfa, after many days of solitary mourning, refusing food or comfort, was found at dawn upon the rocks above her husband's grave. In the proceeding hours before sunrise, she had chosen her path, climbing to a high perch; and sometime, whilst the sky grew light above the ancient stone, had begun her long journey on the road taken by her man.

But that did not put out the light of her memory, for though she was dead, the imprint of the Painted People, her own kin, was indelibly stamped into the Ganti by way of her children and the blood which ran in them. Yat, even as his own firing life eked away, was aware of this, and saw the echo of it in his own children. They were to go forward into their lives, to live, perhaps to die by accident or war before their time, or at the finish, to taper slowly like the last vestiges of fire in the cold ash of another day.

When Cun died, the night grew colder for him. He watched her slip away, his too-many fingers soothing her brow, his nose buried in her hair; the ragged vision of their children and others of the Ganti huddled about him, dancing before his weary eyes. Trance-like, the shaman saw faces watching over him; his mother Tahi, Banta his father, Banji, Cros, Ban, Kari, Tharta, Mishfa. He closed his eyes and the burden was no less. He felt the trickle of tears running through the stubble of beard, and tasted salt. A lifetime was almost gone. The baby, the polydactyl child, had survived into adulthood and old age, and bore now the scars accrued; outwardly and inwardly. Now it was nearly done, and now Yat did not hardly understand at all what his life had been spent upon; only that he grieved and was pleased, and at peace. And now, it seemed little to matter.

He danced that night.

For the last time, Yat danced. And his son Tahni-Yat danced with him, holding him upright where he stumbled, whilst the Ganti watched, and the final mystery was played out.

In the morning, Yat was dead.

His children buried their mother in the usual way, leaving her with items and keepsakes, heaping the earth over her that she might sleep comfortably and become a part of their land; perhaps to grow again as a tree or rock, or a well that they could drink from.

Yat however, they consigned to a different passing.

Tahni-Yat commanded a great pyre built before sunset, and had the body of his father placed upon it as it smouldered and eventually burst into a roaring blaze.

Over two days, the fire burned.

At the dawning of the third day Yat's remains were raked out and spread over the grave of Cun, then covered over with fresh soil, some shells and the bones of various animals. Finally, above this, was raked a bed of live coals, raised into a mound. And there the Ganti kept watch until noon, whilst the coals winked out, and there was nothing more.

Yat was fire.

And fire was Yat.

Chapter 16 to follow
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