Thursday, March 1, 2012

"The Breaking" (Part Five)

A cold wind, keen as a blade, woke me.

The fire had gone out. Breath steamed from my mouth in a cloud. I got up, shivering, and walked to the southern edge of the krim. Frost sheathed their spindly limbs. Then I noticed the light, an undulating ribbon of blue and white where sky met soil. As I watched, it thickened, grew larger.

It was coming right for us.

"Now you'll see with your own eyes."

Moses' voice snapped my head around. Sweat coursed down his brow despite the chill, but his voice held steady.

"What is it?" I asked.

He didn't respond, and I couldn't fathom the depth in his eyes. One moment, he glowered at the onrushing light as though beholding the direst enemy, and the next he gazed almost with fondness.

The glow came on faster, and now I could discern it better: a frigid fire that swept through the dry krim, an icy conflagration that burned but somehow did not consume them.

Panic shot through me. "Can we stop it?" I asked, already knowing the answer.

Yet Moses smiled and said, "It must regard a challenge." After a pause, he added, "Remember, it's brittle at its heart, even though it won't appear so."

On it came, the wave of other flame, and I thought it would catch us up in it and sweep us away into smoke and ash. But it surged up to the brink of the clearing and stopped as if held back by a wall, spilling out to the east and the west. Moses tottered forward, and I feared for him then, so small and wizened before the ravening fire.

"Maviriviri!" he cried. "I call you to account!"

Far out in the burning field, tongues of fire leapt and fell, leapt and fell, cradling something, passing it forward. When it approached, I saw it was an ice-encrusted sphere that steadily pulsed with hard light. It bobbed into the clearing, and flames coalesced around it, a corona that shifted and writhed, that seemed a shapeless flare one moment and a massive, bestial form the next.

"Who challenges me?" it growled.

"I who did so before," Moses said.

A sound rippled from the maviriviri, a sound I first thought was a brush-fire crackle, then something almost like a purr. "You are the first to do so twice. You see how soon they cease to care. They do not remember. They do not believe. They will not defend what they hold dear."

"I will defend them."

Frost crawled across the clods. "You cannot hope to stand against me."

Moses laughed. "Don't you see? I'm not alone!" To me, he hissed, "Ready your spear. Remember: It is brittle."

My spear -- it lay on the other side of the clearing where I had slept.

"This little one?" the maviriviri scoffed.

"I … I don't have it," I said to Moses.

His mouth quivered. "Can you reach it?"

I weighed the breadth of the clearing. "Yes," I lied.

"Good." He squared his shoulders and lifted his head. Then, without a word, he ran at the maviriviri.

The frozen ground bruised my feet as I pounded across it.

A choked shriek of agony sounded behind me, a cry quickly cut off. I didn't look back.

Time compressed, lent me a strange lucidity. Sharp-edged clods sliced my shins as I slid, blood flowing black in the other light. The spear's steel shank shone with frost. A thousand malignant voices hissed at me from the darkness beneath the krim. The icy earth fissured with the force of the maviriviri's roar.

I whirled even as it fell on me.

Other fire ate its way up my outstretched arms, flashing my skin into ash, curling my hands into claws about the spear's shaft. Hard light flared in my face, and I put all my strength into a single thrust toward it …

… and heard a sound like the shattering of glass.

* * *

I don't remember how I made it back to the village, nor the amputation of what remained of my arms, nor that first drink of mampoer to quiet my midnight screams. Moses was right about the fire. It burns more than just the outside. But if the forgetting is a mercy, then the flames are as well, for they burned me worse than him, and I won't live long enough to see my own work forgotten.

I testify to what I saw on the veld that night: Even as the maviriviri's body dissipated and the other fire faded, a mist rose from the broken shell of its heart, was caught up by a northern wind and blown until it vanished from sight.

What happened to it? I cannot say. Some might whisper that it traveled beyond the poisoned sea to the bottom of the world where all is ice and cold. But I will not traffic in rumors and half-truths, which only stiffen a man's back so that he cannot bend to cut krim. Unlike Moses, I do not go out to the veld. I have others set down words with the letters I never learned. I have them write in hope that the work might continue when I am only dust. I speak of the thing I saw with my eyes and the peace I purchased from it with my hands. I can say that it has gone back to the place from which it came.

But I cannot say it has gone forever.


Jackie Jordan said...

I enjoyed your series very much. It was an intriguing tale ...

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks, Jackie! You can read a little more about the writing of it here if you're interested.

Unknown said...

Quite a powerful story. I like the African mythos that this captures and particularly like your handling of the characters, which makes me willing to believe in his sacrifice at the end.

Loren Eaton said...

Thank you, Aidan. I was very impacted by my trip to Africa in the late nineties. I spent time in Zimbabwe just before Mugabe tore the country to pieces. It makes me wonder whatever happened to all those people I met.