Authors: William Todd Rose
Breaking through her paralysis, Lila ran over the jagged stones of the riverbank. Her usual grace had abandoned her, causing her to stumble and fall as her feet entangled themselves in another. Sharp rocks peeled back the skin on her knees but before blood had even begun flowing she scrambled to her feet again.
As she grew closer to the object lying on the shore, details began to reveal themselves. The mop of red hair, pale skin, and brown loincloth. His tiny, rounded nose and lips that seemed to perpetually pout.
Please no, please no, please Great Spirit, please please please ….
Asham lay on his back with his hands folded across his chest, thumbs interlocked as if making the shape of a bird with his palms and fingers. His eyes were closed and he appeared to have fallen into a deep, sound sleep.
Falling to her knees, Lila flung her spear to the side and scooped her son into her arms. He hung limply in the cradle formed by her elbows as she pressed him to her chest and rocked back and forth. He was just napping that was all. He’d wake up with that special smile of his, would beg for a breakfast of venison when he knew perfectly well there was none. He would laugh and skip and play until it was time to sleep again, time to rest. She hadn’t really seen a smooth slit arching across his throat that looked like a flap of skin that had simply come loose. And the sticky blood covering the rocks was nothing more than a trick of the light, just a cruel trick, that was all. It had to be trick.
Lila felt, more than heard, the low moan building in the hollow void of her chest. She felt it resonate in the abyss, growing in strength as it spiraled through the barren cavity. Asham wavered in and out of focus as hot tears streamed from her eyes and she clutched him more tightly, intent on not allowing him to fluctuate out of existence.
She had no idea how long she’d sat there, rocking the lifeless body of her son while her voice broke and cracked through the words of his favorite songs. Time meant nothing. There was only the chill of Asham’s body seeping into her own warm flesh and the sound of the river, continuing on as it had for millennia.
Eventually, a callused hand touched her so lightly that it could have been a butterfly alighting on her shoulder. She jerked away and pressed her face into Asham’s red hair, allowing it to muffle her sobs.
“Lila . . . he’s gone.”
Her head snapped up and whipped around so quickly that tears flung from her glistening cheeks. Her eyes were red and puffy, but they flared with pinpoint glimmers of anger.
“He’s lost . . .”
“He’s not gone! He’s not. He was
. Like Myra. Like Jarnell. Like
!” As quickly as her voice had risen in anger, it dropped to a hoarse whisper that was almost drowned by the roar of the river. “They will die for this. All of them. They will know what it means to lose a child. To lose a husband. Their pain will balance the scales. Do you see? Do you see, Tanta? We must have vengeance.”
A small group of people had clustered around Lila and the light of their torches made it look as if Asham’s eyelids were about to flutter open. Most of the tribe could not look directly at her, fearing the madness and sorrow that seethed within her gaze. They studied the rocks of the shore, watched the waters flowing by, or simply closed their eyes. No one spoke, so Lila repeated in a louder voice, “We must have
Tanta, a short man whose beard looked like a overgrown scrub brush, shook his head slowly. He tried to speak in calm, measured tones but the words faltered. “It is not The Way , Lila. The Council would not approve.”
Damn the Elders!”
Spittle flew from Lila’s mouth as the words burst forth. “They would have us sit and wait to be slaughtered like game. They would stand idly by while our children are left to die.”
“You are grieving, woman. You don’t know what you say . . .”
Lila scrambled to her feet and thrust her arms toward Tanta as if offering him the corpse draped across them. “This was my child, Tanta. My
Where is the honor in this? Is this a noble death? An honorable death?”
“You must listen to . . . .”
“No!” Lila screeched. “
must listen. You
must listen.” She turned slowly and watched as the eyes of her brothers and sisters flickered between the ground and Asham’s body. “They will continue to hunt us. They will continue to strike us down. Passivity teaches them how to treat us. We are telling them this is okay. That our lives are theirs for the taking. But I swear before my ancestors . . .
this is not okay!
“Listen to yourself . . . you’re talking about suicide.”
“I am talking about
With or without the Council of Elders’ blessing, I
wage this battle. Whether or not any of you stand with me, I will fight until the last of the clear skins’ blood has been drank by the hungry earth.”
Lila took a deep breath and looked down upon Asham’s face. She studied every feature as she would the forest floor, intent on locking it into her memory for all eternity. She would never forget what he looked like, would never struggle to recall a particular characteristic. He would be with her always.
“They will die for their sins, my sweet boy.” She whispered. “They
Gather at the feet of the Elders, brothers and sisters, and listen to a tale from the time of our ancestors. May they always walk with us …
So it came to be that The People lay staring at the sun while the blood of their bodies made mud in the fields below them. The weapons of the clear skins had cut our numbers by two thirds and John Redtree, he who is greatest among our ancestors, saw that to continue would mean the certain death of those still left alive. Gathering his warriors, he allowed The Great Spirit to guide them deep into the forest. They came to a vast lake where the waters were so clear that in the dark of night it looked as though the earth had captured the stars overhead and possessed them as her own. Here, The People laid their heads upon the grass and cried for their fallen brothers and sisters, knowing that they had passed through the Veil, never to return. It is said that for five days and nights their tears soaked into the soil and The Great Spirit was so moved by their plight that it took pity and delivered unto them a motherless calf so that they might fill their bellies.
Even with the coming of food and an abundance of water, however, The People were mired by loss and heartache and they knew not where to turn in these times of turmoil. As the Days of Tears moved on, John Redtree looked upon the disheartened tribe and anger blossomed in his heart like a rose in spring.
“You have nothing I want!” he shouted to the distant clear skins. “I reject you and your ways! From this day forth, The People and clear skins shall be like the rabbit and wolf, never again to live in peace.”
So great was his anger that he who is greatest among our ancestors (may they always walk with us) rejected the name that had been given to him by his father. From that day forth, the man known as John Redtree was no more, calling himself instead Jo’ree. Guided by The Great Spirit, Jo’ree taught The People how to capture the fish from the lake and which berries could be eaten from the vine without souring the stomach. Building shelter from the bounty of the forest, they followed The Way with each man, woman, and child taking new names as well.
It was thought that The People would live by the shining lake forever, but this was not meant to be. For the clear skins had sent their assassins into the world with evil in their hearts and minds. Once the harvesters of life, these white-suited Sweepers were now harbingers of death and The People were driven further and further from the lands that had always been called their home.
As with all things, The Great Spirit finally saw in It’s wisdom that the time had come for Jo’ree, he who is greatest among our ancestors, to part the Veil. Many were the saddened hearts who bid his spirit safe journey and it has been told that even the earth itself cried, swelling the streams and rivers to the point that hills became as islands.
With their great leader walking among the stars, dissension fell upon the minds of those left behind. Some wished to continue walking the path that Jo’ree had set them upon. Others wished to use it as a guide which they could, in turn, base their own teachings and doctrines from. Some wanted to commune peacefully with the earth and some wanted to make war against the clear skins for the indignities The People had been made to suffer. And so it was that the six great tribes were formed.
Yet it is said that Jo’ree still looks down upon us all from beyond the Veil, watching over his brothers and sisters, guarding and guiding us in all things. If, on a clear night, you turn your eyes to the heavens, you may be blessed to see a streak of light shooting across the darkness like an ember caught by the breeze. If this happens, brothers and sisters, then your heart should sing joyful praises, for this is the bursting of Jo’rees blisters and wherever it touches, new stars will form And you should live your life knowing that there is hope, that a time has been foretold when The People shall no longer be hunted, but will live out their days in peace and harmony with all things.
The setting sun cast the city in a diffuse, honey-colored glow that seemed to radiate from the buildings and people themselves. With dust hanging in the air so thickly that the street looked grainy, Tanner Kline stood on a wooden sidewalk and watched pedestrians pass by. They were covered nearly head to foot in frilly bell-shaped dresses, tight fitting breeches, capes, cloaks, top hats, and bonnets; bows and ribbons fluttered with their passing, yet somehow they all moved as if the heels of their polished shoes were cobbled from lead. No one turned to look at him. No one acknowledged his presence. It was almost as if he were a ghost standing in a silly little bowler hat and suspenders, condemned to observe the living without participating.
By his side was something he’d only ever seen in mildew bloated books. It looked like a large, wooden box that balanced on a single, spindly leg. A leather strap went from one corner of the padded top to the other, crossing over his shoulder like the lacy bags some of the women passing by carried. On the side of the box was a metal crank and, even though the workings were hidden within the scuffed and scarred wood, Tanner knew this handle would cause a barrel within the box to spin when it was turned. The revolution would trigger notes from pins and staples embedded into the barrel, a preprogrammed song whose tempo was dictated by the turning of the shaft.
“A barrel organ,” he thought, “which would make me the organ grinder.”
At that moment, Tanner realized there was a thin-gauge, silver chain looped around his wrist. His eyes followed the shiny links as they swagged down and attached to a small leather collar. This collar encircled a throat with blue tinged skin and attached to that neck was a young boy with red hair. Constellations of freckles dotted his nose and the boy looked up at Tanner with wide, blue eyes as sunlight reflected off the brass buttons of his red, velvet jacket.
Tanner give the chain a tug and the boy’s head pulled back just enough to reveal the slit in his throat. The gash almost looked as though it were smiling up at him and Tanner found himself wishing he had some peanuts with which to distract the boy. When a search of his pockets turned up empty, he knew he had no choice: he’d have to make the child dance to keep from seeing that hideous grin again.
Cranking the handle of the barrel filled the street with a sound that was like the music of a pipe organ that had been salvaged from the bricks of a toppled building. The tempo dragged and lagged, demanding that Tanner crank evenly more quickly to bring the song up to speed.
In response to the discordant music, the boy scooped a tasseled fez from the sidewalk and walked toward the street until the chain would allow him to go no further. With a slight bow, he danced an elegant waltz with an invisible partner, swirling among the lazy dust motes as if pulling them into his imaginary ballroom. This display, in turn, led a gentlemen with a particularly shiny top hat to flip a quarter into the air. Tanner watched the coin tumbling end over end, flashing in the sunlight as everything in the background faded to black.
There was the coin. There was the music. And the void bridged them.
As he watched, the coin changed mid flip into a bloated heart. The ventricles ballooned out with built up pressure, snapping veins and arteries like taut wires, as the muscle continued to swell. Once the size of a closed fist, the organ inflated larger and larger until the over-extended heart burst into a shower of smaller organs with a pop that sounded like distant gunfire: kidneys, intestines, lungs, pancreas, brains, and liver – all fell through the perfect darkness in slow motion clarity. Every wrinkle, every strand of sinew and glob of gristle was so defined that it was like gazing into valleys of meat and tissue.
Glancing down, Tanner noticed that the padding from the top of the box had inexplicably disappeared and he could now look directly into the instrument. Instead of the pins and staples of a barrel organ, silver cylinders with tooth-like spikes gnashed against one another. The spikes clanged abrasively and polluted the tune with a metallic backbeat that bordered on chaotic.
As he watched, the tumbling viscera fell into the box, where they were chewed and crushed and shredded between the whirring mechanisms. The ground meat was then forced into a slender tube that led to a spigot on the front of the box, where it oozed out of the tap like a long, bloody feces.
And then Tanner himself was falling through the void, rushing toward the hungry teeth while the organ played on.