Threads to Make a Whole
She was dying.
Stumbling, she had no more tears to give despite the pitch of her grief and agony. Her tongue was swollen and her skin was scoured raw as blisters swelled and burst. She fell more often than she stood, then crawled wretchedly on her belly, embedding grit and sand into raw skin. She had no idea where she was going, only the stubborn refusal to believe she could die and her obstinate will to live despite men and circumstance. That will had refused to recognize that, without water, her life was measured in hours.
Her thought had been only to rest for a moment, rolling onto her back, her eyes wide and staring, watching as the sun burned away the last of her vision. It was good to rest, and with that came a strange peace. The sun wasn’t so bright or so hot any longer. Night was coming, and the wind would be cool, soothing her burns. Maybe I'll see the stars.
There was a sense of euphoria, of letting go as her clawed fingers relaxed, releasing the sand under her hands, and her breathing became shallower. Even the sound of the sniffer moving closer elicited nothing.
She was dying.
* * * * *
She was dying.
An old woman tired in body and spirit, k’bar had been falling behind now for many days. The People moved in a narrow column across the sands, footsteps placed in footsteps to disguise their number. k’bar was the last of them, her steps faltering as she leaned on her spear. Ahead of her, further and further ahead each time she looked, was k’bar’s chal-amal, her apprentice. All the elders had chal-amai, young people, usually family to inherit their wisdom, their gear, and perform that last, most sacred of rites, return their water to Gorum Loras, the Sacred City, when they died.
h'lasta glanced back just in time to see k’bar fall. She was no relation to the old woman, not by blood or water, but k’bar’s wisdom was great. In her time, the elder had been a fierce hunter, a gifted healer, and held the heart of the next leader. For a time. So h'lasta had accepted to be the withered crone’s chal-amal. It was not a contract easily broken, but h'lasta was sure the old woman’s knowledge would make her great among the People. She, h'lasta, would do better than her predecessor. I will be mighty, and never, never will I follow behind. Not even on the day of my death.
Now was k’bar’s time to die, and it was h'lasta’s time to tend her. The chal-amai would sit with their elders in the final hours of life, learning the last of their secrets. Then they took their inheritance, the best of their elder’s gear, and their duty, what water remained. That water, a full skin or a few drops, would be borne to Gorum Loras, no matter how far the stars had to turn before the People reached it again.
h'lasta’s eyes met k’bar’s as the old woman raised her head. She felt herself flinch. She did not want to linger behind with the old crone. k’bar had been stingy with her wisdom, begrudging with her teachings. She’d obviously seen the potential for h'lasta to be greater than she, and it had made the old woman bitter. With all she’d withheld for spite, what could she teach h'lasta now? Nothing. She knew k'bar would use her last, rattling breath to scold her for not paying better attention.
h'lasta looked toward the column of the People, which had not stopped for k’bar or her. Of course, they would not, she thought worriedly. They would trust the elder had imbued her apprentice with the skills to survive alone, at least long enough to find the People again. Heart racing, h'lasta tried for a moment to recall what k’bar had said about finding her way by the stars, should capricious Jareese erase the tracks and shift the dunes.
And then she saw the mocking resignation in the old woman’s eyes as k’bar turned onto her back and lay sprawled, arms open and accepting toward the sky.
k’bar knew h'lasta would follow the People. h'lasta waited only long enough for the People to disappear over the far ridge. She knew it would take some time for anyone to notice she was gone and to claim that k'bar's death walk had been brief. Turning, she reached for the spear, but k'bar was not dead and would not release the spear of her family to this worthless piece of dung. Try as she might, h'lasta could not pry the old woman's grip free.
Sitting back in frustration, h'lasta felt years of anger and bitterness building toward the old crone. Screaming, h'lasta bent her legs and kicked k'bar's body into a roll down the sloping sand, where she again flopped onto her back with her arms spread open to the sky above, the spear still clutched in her hand.
Fear now replaced hatred as h'lasta scrambled to her feet, worried that her scream might have carried. Her breathing was quick as her eyes searched the ridges for scavengers. Then her eyes saw the many-colored shawl that had slipped from k'bar's shoulders as she rolled.
“Hah!” h'lasta snorted in triumph as she lovingly picked up the shawl and swung it around her shoulders. The shawl was the visible attainment of her position as whisperer and healer to the People. She turned, holding out her arms as the shawl floated around her and the colors caught the last of the light. h'lasta was so entranced by the image of herself returning to the People as they made way for her, giving her respect and honor of place, three footsteps behind the leader, that she turned, abandoning k'bar’s fine spear and water bladder, both.
k'bar had been a hunter in her youth as well as whisperer and healer. That was not h'lasta. As she walked away, h'lasta practiced first one way then another with the shawl and how she would cover her head or swing the shawl around her shoulders for maximum effect. The matter of not coming back with k'bar's spear and water was vexing but not insurmountable.
k'bar heard h'lasta's retreat. Her only regret, as she closed her eyes, was that her water would never mingle with that of her family in the Sacred City. No one knew what happened to those who never completed their death walk. She expected she would soon find out.
One last secret that little fekkah, h'lasta, would not have from her.
* * * * *
k’bar opened her eyes and sat up abruptly, startling a sniffer that had been investigating her as carrion, so badly it bounded away, yelping like a pup. This does not look like the Shadelands, she thought, not that anyone had ever returned from the dead to say what it was like. It looked, rather, precisely like the spot she had laid down to die the previous eve. Jareese had played gently while k’bar slept, so the tracks of the People remained, very faintly. The High Ridges were visible to the northeast. The skin around her eyes was tight and stung, burned but unblistered. Her balm had lasted while she lay beneath Nazal at his fiercest. Now he waned to the west, and she was… Not dead.
Alone... not dead. That was fine, for a start. She pushed herself up with the help of her spear, considering the landscape. What are my choices... really? she considered, Continue to follow the People and that faithless chal-amal? She snorted. An impressive amount of sand and impacted snot fired from her nose. Next time, h'lasta just might have enough wits about her to finish what she started. Shaking her head, she said aloud, “No. I will not go back.”
She ached and pained the way an old woman who’d laid out in the elements ready to die might expect to ache, but nothing was broken. She could walk. So, her “death walk” would be more literal than metaphorical.
“Then why am I not dead?” she asked of Jareese swirling around her. Standing with toes curling the edge of a cliff, the old woman rocked back and forth as her eyes wandered slowly over the horizon from the Great G'neadi to the J'nooth. Her body stiffened as she saw in the distance the mother of all sandstorms screaming its way out of the dried seabed of the J'nooth.
“Dust and bitters!” she cursed. Even at this distance she could sense the power of the storm, feeling it crackle and sting the skin where it was not protected by wrappings. It was a race as she hurried back toward a fissure she had passed that might offer protection.
The fissure was just large enough. There she hurriedly tucked her water, her pack and weapons in first, wrapping her blanket tightly around her body and head, and stepped backward into the opening.
The storm raced through the canyons and over cliffs like a voracious beast that cannot be sated. Peering through a fold in the blanket, the old woman looked out on madness as the ground seemed to undulate into darkness. The howling screams of the storm shook her body as she quickly hid her face, recognizing that she was not ready to die.
Several hours later, the desert was once again quiet, the fissure's opening almost buried by a dune.
Digging her way out, she rolled over onto her back, feeling more aware than she had in many passings. How did I get it so wrong? Maybe, I am not as old as I think I am. At that thought, a soft humph escaped her lips. Standing, she soon pulled her water and weapons and her pack from the back of the fissure.
The terrain was no longer as she remembered as she asked herself, What now?
* * * * *
He was waiting for her to die.
His eyes never left the small body. It was the next meal for the tribe of scavengers waiting patiently in the shade for this unexpected feast.
The she-at, matriarch of the pack, had sent out the sniffer, the pack's sacrifice. When the sniffer determined the feast was safe, the pack would gorge, and the sniffer would live another day.
He had been fortunate for the last season and had lived longer than most of his kind. His muzzle was completely gray, and his back leg hitched as he trotted.
At one time, he had been the mate of the last she-at and had been the second to feed. Now he was nothing, but even a sniffer has value and a wish for life. So he patiently kept pace with the stumbling, two-legged feast. Silently, the sniffer crawled on his belly from rock to scrub to rock.
The feast had fallen.
He crouched beside the last scrub, rose and took the last two steps and nosed the feast. He grinned, salivating, his hunger gnawing at his ribs as his long rough tongue licked the oozing blisters, tasting death as the feast whimpered. Resisting the urge to lick again, he savored the moment.
As the sniffer took in a breath to howl his triumph, a spear struck through his chest, speeding through to his heart and lungs. Lying on the ground, the sniffer looked up into the face of his death, questioning what he had missed. He saw that his death was old like him. Reaching down, the old woman laid her hand on his flank, whispering words of praise, “Of all the desert, you are to be feared, your strength and stealth to be envied. Go desert warrior, find your peace.”
Yes, my death recognizes me... The sniffer let go his last breath.
k'bar unbent from her death sending, shaking her spear and calling out to the pack, “This day is mine.”
The she-at rose to challenge the old woman's call. This two-legged being was one, and they were many. Then the she-at's eyes focused on the swirling wind that enveloped the woman and gave power to her calling. Recognizing there was more here than one old woman, the she-at called out her acknowledgment as she led her pack from the rise.
* * * * *
k'bar had seen the body and the sniffer and was not going to interfere even when she heard the tiniest of whimpers. Every life and every death is of value in the Great G'neadi, and the whimper was the sound of life coming to an end. That life's ending would be nourishment for the she-at's pack. But as k'bar began to turn away, the wind buffeted her at every turn.
Angry, she stopped fighting the wind. Is this why I am not dead? Shaking her head, she called out, “Have I ever not come when you called?”
* * * * *
The sun was almost gone and the cold of the night would soon be blanketing the desert. Without a look at the small body lying next to the dead sniffer, k'bar began laying out the dried dung she had collected on her walk and began twisting and tying dried grasses into tight bundles. Stones stacked around the makings of her fire would soak up the heat and throw it out long after the fire had burned its last.
Reaching into the small beaded leather pouch around her neck, she withdrew her precious flint and started a fire. Feeding the beginning flames, she slowly pulled from her pack some carefully wrapped dried seeds and roots. Satisfied, she pulled out her knife of black obsidian and separated the sniffer's fur from his body in one long well-practiced pull. Popping one of the sniffer's eyeballs into her mouth, she made smacking sounds of enjoyment. The guts and pelt were placed on the rocks to dry. The heart, brains, tongue, and liver went into a small clay pot along with onion buds and tubers. From her tightly wrapped water bladder, she poured the smallest portion of water into the pot, licking the moisture from the edge so that none would go to waste. Other parts of the sniffer were strung on sticks and laid across the fire to roast.
Opening up two more folded leather packs, she carefully placed the packs within easy reach, and for the first time looked closely at the small body. Not much shocked her, but seeing a child in the outer reaches of the Great G'neadi was unexpected.
Her hands stilled as she considered what this might all mean. Her old heart had given up hope too many passings ago for a child. She had been shamed and angry and finally buried the hope that held her longing. Her mate had set her aside for a woman who dropped a child every passing until her death with the seventh. Being barren, she should have walked away into the night and died, but she was gifted from her mother's mother in healing.
Calling out to the night, she asked, “Is this your idea of humor to present me with a child now?” Shaking her head, k'bar spoke softly, “What if I refuse?” The air stilled and grew colder than she could ever remember. Bowing her head, she spoke out to the night, “I accept,” and felt Jareese return.
Putting her conflicting thoughts aside, k'bar trickled small drops of her precious water into the small swollen mouth, massaging the neck to encourage swallowing. She then began the task of peeling the sun-rotted clothing from the burned and blistered skin.
Finding a chain embedded in the raw skin around the neck, the woman used her black knife, severing the chain where it erupted from mangled flesh. As each section was worked free, her fingers let the bloody chain spill onto the ground along with the two round objects it held.
After dusting the yellow powder of the chalala that bloomed and died all in the same day over the macerated skin, she began rubbing the grease drippings from the roasting sniffer over the powder. She worked quickly, fearing consciousness would return before she was finished. Pausing, only once did k'bar consider the uselessness of what she was attempting, wasting her minimal resources on a body this close to death. Covering the grease with thin strips from her own wrappings and even more strips around the child's sunblind eyes, she sat back to contemplate the gifting.
For three days, the old woman did not leave except to search nearby for fuel for her fire and stunted grasses to weave matting to block the sun. Every few hours, she trickled water into the child's mouth and watched as the lips and tongue began to accept even these meager offerings on their own.
On the fourth day, the child awoke crying and trying to pull the wrappings from her eyes. k'bar grabbed the child's hands, placing them on her own face, and shook her head, “N'che.” The child whimpered and then cried out in pain as panicked fingers searched still oozing blisters around her neck.
k'bar realized what the child's fingers sought. Gently holding the child's hand, k'bar placed the two round hollow objects in the small palm while speaking words of comfort and calming. Exhausted as she was, the child accepted the unknown intent of k'bar's words, as she slipped into the beginning of a healing sleep, holding tightly to the objects.
Sitting back, k'bar gazed out into the darkness surrounding her fire. If we are to survive, I must go for water. But still, she hesitated. It would mean retracing her steps to the small spring tucked into the cliff she had passed one day's walk before.
Two days? she thought, knowing there was no other choice. The child could not be moved. But if I leave, will not the she-at and her pack return? Or some other predator? k'bar worried, staring up into the heavens of the Great G'neadi. Shaking her head, she knew she had been led to this child, so leaving her would change nothing.
Reaching into her pack, she pulled out a folded tucca leaf containing silver gray powder. Holding the leaf near the child's face, the old woman blew the powder gently as the child breathed in.
It was done. The child would sleep deeply for a full day or more. Hopefully more. k'bar picked up her pack and set off at a rambling trot. Traveling at night was not the best, but she nor the child could wait.
* * * * *
She was still considering the ways of the Great G'neadi, which was desert and sky and spirit to the People. “If this is what you wanted me to do, why not just tell me?” she said to the wind that swirled around her.
Jareese seemed to dance across the desert. “I see,” she growled, and called out her frustration, “You are adept at making sane men stupid.”
She was the healer and whisperer for the People and had been talking to the wind since she was a child. The wind was laughing, leaving her feeling both frustrated and oddly comforted. It was now clear to her that she had been more than encouraged to think she was dying. Dust and bitters! she cursed in annoyance, I should have known. No wonder I made a two-day journey in one.
* * * * *
As k'bar had walked the Great G'neadi, habit made her hands search the dried grasses for grain, and her eyes sought hidden tubers. All this she had accepted, as she now accepted this child. My child, she thought, and her heart knew the words were right.
It was not a painless healing, but the child did not cry, accepting the food placed in her hands, and gratefully receiving the drops of water. It was obvious she wanted more, but she did not ask. Only her small hand lingered over k'bar's wrapped hand as if a third hunger wracked her soul, each touch a reminder she was not alone.
As gently as she could, k'bar placed an object in the child's scabbed and healing hands, a rock, saying, “n'och.” “n'och.” After several tries, the child repeated the word. The woman nodded and touched the child's face. The rock was placed near the child's mat, and another object was placed in her hands. That object was placed next to the rock. At the end of the day, the child was surrounded by pieces from the desert.
k'bar took the child's hand and placed it on the rock, and asked, “Che-neh?” After a moment, the child said, “n'och,” k'bar moved the child's hand to the feather. “Che-neh?” The child smiled and answered “orto” as k'bar touched her face. Without waiting, the child felt around her until the next object came to her hand, a clay pot, “du-etna” and quickly moved to the next and the next until there were no more.
The child was tired but elated as her ragged breathing slipped from her raw throat. Taking a small amount of chalala powder and the crushed needles from the o-elat cactus along with its juice, k'bar held the mixture to the child's mouth.
Placing her hands over k'bar's as the cup was raised to her lips, the child did not let go. Instead, she turned blind-wrapped eyes toward the woman. “Button,” the child whispered. Taking k'bar's hand and placing it on her own small chest, “Button,” she repeated.
The woman nodded in unseen understanding and repeated, “utton.” The child smiled through cracked lips repeating slowly, “Baa-ton.” Nodding, k'bar tried again, “Baaaa-ton.” k'bar then turned the child's hand in hers and placed it on her own chest. “k'bar.”
“k'bar,” the child whispered with a sigh, laying down and going to sleep.
The lessons continued as scabs fell away leaving healthy pink skin. Button was no longer an invalid and, even without her eyes, k'bar pushed her to walk and expand her vocabulary. She made her remember her steps, and feel with her feet what her eyes could not see. Playing a game of “What do you hear?” around the fire at night, Button would separate out and name each sound.
There were so many questions, but the one Button could not ask was about her eyes. It was evening. Button was weaving the bindings made from softened feather grasses. These bindings would be her protection from Nazal.
k'bar knelt in front of her and quieted Button's hands. With practiced fingers, k'bar found the tucked edge of the wrapping for Button's eyes and slowly unwound the strips of cloth.
Button could make out light through her eyelids, but this was nothing unusual. She had seen flickers before as k'bar had replaced the moistened tucca leaves over her eyes and re-wrapped them into darkness again. This time there were no more tucca leaves, only a damp cloth to soften the crusting that held her lids shut.
k'bar said, “Utaa.” Button bowed her head. “Utaa!” commanded k-bar, lifting Button's chin. “Facing the unknown is better than walking with a she-at behind you.”
Button could not help but smile as she teased, “Is there a she-at behind me?”
“If there was, you would have felt her breath on your neck by now,” k'bar said in her usual literal way.
Button started to explain, “I was trying to...”
“...put off the fear?” k'bar finished.
“Yes, I am afraid,” Button whispered.
“We can be afraid together and never do anything, or we can be brave together and be spirit warriors.” k'bar waited, as Button gave thought to her words.
“I'm not sure what a spirit warrior is,” Button said.
“Sometimes, the real battles in our lives are the ones we fight within ourselves. That is when we become spirit warriors,” k'bar explained.
“Yes, like now,” k'bar said, waiting.
Sighing, Button took the moistened cloth and held it to her eyes and gently wiped away the crusting that kept her eyes shut. Taking a deep breath, Button opened her eyes. There was nothing but shadowy light.
Was knowing better or worse? Button thought.
k'bar said in the quietest of voices, “I have told you the People do not shed tears for Jareese the wind to steal, but today and only today, you must shed tears.” The tenderness in k'bar's voice and being folded into her arms brought forth tears that Button could not stop. k'bar rocked her back and forth until the tears subsided. Button pulled back and raised her head, looking for the first time on k'bar and, smiled.
k'bar's head was wrapped in strips of cloth, her skin dark and weathered where it showed around her mouth, and her eyes. Her head quirked in a questioning tilt.
Button smiled, “I see you, k'bar, of the People.”