Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Breaking" (Part Three)

During the night, Munetsi ran off. I found his spear driven deep into the dirt the next morning. His disappearance surprised only me. Itai grumbled that he did not know where the richboy went, nor did he care. Moses, who sat by the cold ashes of the fire and did not appear to have slept, said, "He was only here on his father's whim, an attempt to strengthen his soft son. I'm sure he will appeal to his mother, and she would never make him return."

Why did I not leave? Was it only my reluctance to face mistress Manyara after abandoning the task entrusted to me, a simple fear of shame? No. While Munetsi had what Itai and I lacked, a wealthy father and an indulgent mother who would cover over any wrong, I could not stop wondering why Moses would claim the least-desired work in the village as his own. Curiosity kept me laboring in the endless heat.

Bend. Dig. Cut. Burn. The work remained the same. But my head ached. My eyes burned. My hands were clumsy. I hacked at a clump of roots, hit a stone, and the wooden blade splintered in my hands. My patience snapped, and I hurled the ruined tool as far into the krim as I could. Itai's voice floated to me, cursing the bushes and the heat of the day and the damn old jackal who made him endure both. The rhythmic clink of the machete punctuated his unending complaint.

A heel scraped in the dirt behind me.

"The first night on the veld is hard," Moses said. His words held no anger, only a tired sympathy. "It comes from the soil. A slow poison. The ancient ones' weapons could strike further than the eye can see and destroy great cities in a breath. When they warred and ravaged everything that once lay south of us, they birthed The Breaking. But they did not know what would come after." He looked out at the krim. "I cannot think they thought of this."

Shame welled up inside me as he hobbled back to the camp. I possessed two hands, a strong back. Why should I stop working, poisoned earth or not? I marched back and into the krim, thinking to retrieve the tool, to repair it somehow. Ten steps in, I realized I could no longer hear Itai or his machete. I stopped. An utter absence of sound enveloped me. Even my breath seemed muted. Before me stretched row on row of twisted branches, overlapping, intertwining, growing into one another as though becoming a single organism.

They were quiet. Waiting.

I broke and bolted out, certain now of Moses' anger, for I could not work without a tool. But he and Itai had already packed. I volunteered to carry Munetsi's portion and didn't feel its weight, so glad was I to leave the place where the silence crouched like a living thing.

* * *

When we returned to the village, mistress Manyara arranged for me to borrow a knife and kept watch over me as I carved a piece of blackwood into an approximation of my old tool. After returning it, I slept, and when I awoke the next morning, the dullness had left me. My body felt strong, my mind awhirl with questions. I dressed quickly and went early to the meeting place.

I found Moses already there. We spoke while waiting for Itai, but whenever our conversation closed in on something important -- the krim's origin, the risk they posed to the village, the strange way in which they would not burn -- he spun it toward talk of little consequence. He seemed distrustful of my queries, as though I only sought opportunity to mock. And every few moments the bottle would rise to his lips. I wondered how long he could go without the heat of it in his mouth.

Finally, Itai appeared. He did not have his spear.

"You do not have your spear," Moses said.

"You do not have your spear," Itai echoed. "What of it? I have this." He waved the machete.

"That will not help when you have need of it. I have told you --"

"I don't care what you have told me, old sow!" Itai shouted, the mockery flashing into anger. "You want nothing more than ears to listen to you, nothing more than people who will --"

"Go get it," I said, cutting him off. "You're wasting the light."

Itai dropped the machete and rushed at me. I punched him in his side, and he gasped, staggered, but came again, more measured this time. He landed three blows -- two on my chest and one that grazed my ear -- before I buried my fist in his stomach. He went down hard into the dust, retching.

When he came back up, he had the machete.

I backed away. Itai's breathing came in ragged gasps, and he wobbled on unsteady legs. Yet a fever flashed in his eyes, and I knew even an errant stroke with the great knife could kill.

"Stop," I told him. "This is foolishness."

Directly behind him lay my spear.

"No," he huffed. "You listen to his lies. He's a half-dead drunk who only wants power."

"But the krim. Have you seen anything like them? They're dead, yet they grow. They won't burn, yet --"

Itai aimed an overhand swipe at me. I twisted aside, felt the wind stirred by the blade ghost past my shoulder, then spun and slid down on one knee, reaching out, the spear slapping into my hand.

As the machete rose again, I thrust the spearpoint through his palm.

Itai screamed. The machete clattered to the ground. He yanked his hand back and, for a terrible instant, got caught on the spear's barb. But then he pulled free and turned and staggered back toward the village, howling and clutching his wrist.

"We must leave," Moses said.

I trembled with the enormity of my actions.

"Rugare, you did well. You didn't aim to kill. All things can be forgiven, but you won't be welcome here for some time. We must leave. You'll have to carry everything. Do you understand? You must bear the weight of everything."

"I understand," I said. "I'll bear it."

Moses toed the abandoned machete. "Take this, too. I don't think he'll miss it."

* * *

Go to Part Four ...

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