Authors: John Kaden
Copyright © 2012 John Kaden
This book is a work of fiction.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, organizations, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Cover Art by Jeff Ward
Table of Contents
"In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes."
Leonardo da Vinci
gather around the bonfire, drunk and laughing, unaware of the malicious eyes spying them from the forest. The entire village, from newborn to elder, will join the ceremony tonight, paying their respects to a world they never knew. Above the towering redwoods rises the same cold moon that shone down on forgotten Ages, still bearing the relics on her dead and pockmarked face—the old lone banner hanging static in the void, pale red stripes and a blue starry night, the patriotic emblem of a country long gone.
An avenue cuts through the center of the village, laid in stone and lined with torches flaring wildly in the cool night breeze. Rings of huts and cabins branch out like cul-de-sacs, their entrances thrown open and flickering candlelight seeping out onto the footworn soil. A boy of twelve bursts from one of these little dwellings and tears off toward the promenade, takes several long strides and stops, reverses his direction so suddenly he almost topples over, then runs back inside.
His mother is laughing at him, her young cheeks flushed from wine. She sits on a little rawhide stool and braids feathers in her hair.
“Forget something, Jack?”
He slinks over and picks up a bundle of palm fronds, taller than him and painted brilliant red and orange. The cycle is tonight. Jack is playing Fire.
He flashes a lopsided grin and runs off, weaving between several people, careful to not thwack them with his enormous multicolored fronds. He pauses at the entrance of a cabin with walls of thick pine and a thatched roof.
Come in,” says Keethan, lacing his boots by the light of a dented metal sconce. Jack unloads his bundle on the stoop and greets him with a deferential nod. “Are you ready for tonight?”
“Yes, I think so. I hope so.”
“You’ll be fine, I know. You’re a good study. Lia is just out back, almost ready.” He calls over his shoulder, “Lia, Jack is here.”
“Coming,” answers back a sweet high-pitched voice. Lia walks in, leading her mother by the hand, and Jack is struck by how pretty she looks in her little deerskin dress, lined with fur, skinny brown arms dangling at her sides, covered halfway to the elbows in an odd assortment of bracelets and charms. Her long, oil-black hair is tied up and fastened with much ornamentation and she wears a curious smile on her face.
“Where is it?”
Jack narrows his eyes on her and tilts his chin toward the door. She says nothing, but arches her small eyebrows in childish and demure provocation. Jack is trapped and knows it. He moves stoically onto the stoop, attaches his headpiece, and hoists the great orange fronds, deadpan. Lia grins wildly, her large brown eyes turn manic.
He sighs and begins undulating spastically, the colorful palm blades rustling and erupting over his head until Lia collapses in a peel of shrieking laughter. Her mother moves to pick her up off the floor, the little hyena, and sets her back on her feet.
Keethan winks to his wife. “You see, Marni, see what she does to him?”
“He’ll be fine.”
“He’ll be afraid to leave his house after tonight.”
A deep bell toll reverberates through the village, along with the whispering sound of distant cheers. Keethan collects his things and ushers them outside, blowing out the candles as he leaves. Bonfire flames lick the sky above the roofs of the low cabins and rich woodsmoke stings their nostrils. Lia elbows Jack and takes off running, and he raises his fiery appendages like a spear and chases after. Keethan and Marni walk hand in hand down the stone promenade, joining up with Jack’s mother and the few last remaining stragglers and heading off to the courtyard to watch the cycle—The Solstice of Fire.
The Nezra hide in the trees, motionless. Their heads and bodies are shorn hairless, their smooth skin blackened with soot ash, the whites of their eyes lucent and clear. Brave Sons of the Temple—far away from home, risking their lives for righteous glory. Most are concealed well back in the forest, but two scouts perch at either end of the village’s promenade, using the high limbs as watchtowers and regarding the ceremonial proceedings with blank stares.
At the far end opposite the courtyard, past a small cluster of wood and stone buildings, a village guard makes his rounds. He walks the outer bounds of the settlement beyond the tree line, a thick fur draped around his shoulders, an enormous bow slung low across his back. Several pouches around his waist jostle and bounce with each step he takes across the uneven forest floor.
High above him, the darkened form follows his movements with cool detachment. When the lone guardsman curves right and trudges off out of sight, the soot-rimmed eyes return their vigil to the courtyard and the revelers seated around it.
The children crouch behind the fire, fixing their costumes and fidgeting before their big moment. Most of them have played in the cycle in years past—it has been performed since long before even the eldest in the village were children and played in it themselves. It has gone on for centuries.
“Nervous?” Lia asks.
Jack is shifting from foot to foot. “No, are you?”
Lia smiles serenely and shakes her head
Rows of wooden benches encircle the footworn stage and every seat is full, the village having nearly outgrown itself. Olen steps to the front of the spirited congregation and moves to quiet them, his wild shock of gray hair lit like a halo by the roaring bonfire.
“Been a good year,” he says. “One I’m thankful to have seen.”
The small audience stills itself, rapt with attention as Olen’s grizzled old voice cracks over the fire. He dispatches the village business, carrying on about the new irrigation system and giving brief salutations to those who helped in its construction. He calls out the new mothers and fathers, holding their little bundles close for warmth. Small, pink faces peer out and gaze at the fire like solemn little monks. When these niceties are complete, Olen lowers his gaze.
A drummer boy beats a taut, hide-wrapped barrel and a low bass rumble vibrates the ground. Two men traverse the clearing carrying long wooden poles, which they mount before the fire. Stretched between the uprights is a patchwork stitching of hides, glowing amber, backlit by the roaring flame.
“Much has been lost,” says Olen, his voice turning grave. “Turned to dust. Gone. The world was not always like this. Almost every people I’ve encountered in my long years has told a story of terrible fire and destruction, and the tellings run common. I’ve dreamt since I was a boy that someday we’d know why. But for now, at least, this is all we have… and all we know.”
Behind the luminescent screen of animal skins, silhouetted by fire, a wiry girl named Jeneth rises and begins rhythmically stirring her arms through the air. The shadow she casts is enormous next to her slight body, a spectral apparition summoning forth the Ages, her limbs disproportionate, her figure warped and flickering.
Two lines of children snake slowly around the fire, moving with a crouching skip-step, and the lines join at the center to form a circle. The circle splits and becomes a figure eight. The figure eight splits and becomes two loops, and they in turn split again and suddenly there are four small circles churning like gears, the children in their regalia marching in step with the drum swell.
They take out lengths of colored ribbon and begin passing them back and forth, hand over hand and above their heads, and when they step out to the far reaches of the dirt-floor stage, the entwined ribbons form complex patterns of eclipsing diamonds. Jeneth writhes ecstatic, her shadow looming—the dance of civilizations coming together and falling apart.
A little boy stumbles and loses his ribbon and the corners of his mouth curl up sheepishly as he runs to retake his position and catch up to the steps. In the furthest row of benches the boy’s parents grin wide and a hushed giggle lights through the crowd.
The rhythm turns warlike and severe. Each cell pulls its thread from the geometric vector and the children begin to bind themselves with the ribbons. Jeneth is frozen behind the screen of skins, her image wavering, ethereal in the dancing flames.
A reed flute sings an eldritch melody as young Haylen steps tenderly forward. She wears straps of hide around her limbs and torso. There are bones, animal bones, tied to the straps—ribs where her ribs would be, femurs and fibulas attached to her leggings, skinny bones covering her arms. Her face is painted in a grotesque skull masque. She is Famine, Sickness, and Death. In the audience, the levity fades and their moods become serious. Tears well in some of their eyes as Death pirouettes in wide meandering arcs through the bound ranks, taking their small hands from the bindings and gently kissing them, and at her very touch they shrivel and thrash in the dirt.
Three boys enter, Jack in front with two behind, and they bear their makeshift flames high above their heads, rippling and twisting them with violent arm motions. The triad breaks and they sweep the brightly painted palm fronds across the ground and swirl them back through the air, a frenetic firestorm, chaos and destruction that sends the beleaguered chorus scratching and crawling across the ground. Jeneth appears now as just a small dark mound, her back arched over and her head buried in her hands.
The deafening riot of drums ceases abruptly, the calamitous Fire recedes, and the night is still—even the forest seems rendered silent, suspended momentarily as if time’s very passage has stopped. The stage is empty. The cowering mystic form behind the screen undulates, adagio, like a faint and laboring heartbeat.
Lia steps to center stage, unhurried, and begins her dance in silence. She is draped with garlands of lush greenery and wreaths of pressed flowers. Graceful and gorgeous, her tiny ballet sweeps across the vast open space as the reed flute pours out a few sparse notes. Jeneth is ascending now, the pulse of her movements growing stronger with each beat. Lia is lost in her dance, elegantly rising on one arched foot and spinning urgently and perfectly, then crouching and sprinting lithely across the dirt stage and soaring into the air, spinning and spinning.