Long, long ago, deep in the Burmese jungle—on the long eastern shore of what was to be called Lake Indawgyi but which was then named for Ei-vu, the spirit of long, sweet water—there lived two tribes:
The Mera, and the Lasi.
Their lands, as large as any among the scattered jungle peoples of their time, with the long lake as their western borders, also bordered each other, Lasi’s to Mera’s north and Mera’s to Lasi’s south.
The Lasi and the Mera, for as far back as legend could reach, had always been mortal enemies, and so they remained.
When Ea-pe created Thanai, the first man, this first man founded the Mera tribe. When Ea-pe created E-u, the first woman, she joined Thanai as his Mera bride and wife. This is what all Mera children were taught by their Yaj-Hate and his helpers.
The Lasi children, on the other hand, were taught that all Lasi stem from Thanai and E-u who were the very first Lasis and who would ever be the father and mother of their tribe. This was so because Ea-pe himself was Lasi. So preached the Lasi Yaj-Hate and his helpers.
The Mera children were also taught, over and over, that anyone who said that Thanai and E-u were not of the Mari tribe, or that they were not the founders of the Mari tribe—always referring to the Lasi, though not saying so openly—were evil and in the grim power of Bilu, the hungry ghost who cast no shadow and who ate children. It was a long-established and well-known fact among the Mera that all Lasi were under Bilu’s spell, and that many Lasi children were eaten by Bilu each year.
Yes, so the Mera children were taught, and they were taught to be grateful that they were born Mera children and not Lasi children, or they might be dead and eaten by now.
Were the Lasi to lay down their weapons and acknowledge the Mera as their betters, and were they to pay tribute to Mera’s excellence and superiority in all endeavors, then, perhaps, Bilu would stop eating Lasi children, but not before then.
This is what the Mera children were taught.
The Lasi children, however, all knew that all Meras were really nothing but Ngoyamas disguised as humans, cannibal demons that wished for nothing more than a sumptuous meal of Lasi child. And if they did not behave, the Meras would sneak into their village at night and carry them away for dinner.
And so, back and forth, generation after generation, went the tribal teaching of their children.
These children, whether Mera or Lasi, unless bitten and killed by vipers or other poisonous creatures, eventually grew up, all with both fear and hatred in their hearts, along with an unease at living so close to such evil enemies.
And all male children, once grown—unless selected as Yaj-Hate helper, a great honor—took up weapons and protected their borders and maimed and killed their enemy as needed, and all female children grew up to have children of their own to whom they passed on these eternal lessons about the Lasi or the Mera.
There was another tale, one whispered among those whose will to fight had begun to fade, a tale frowned upon by the Yaj-Hates of both tribes, a tale that told that when Ea-pe created the world and all beings in it, Thanai and E-u were neither Lasi nor Mera, but of another tribe so ancient that no one can remember its name. But these were just ramblings of the too-old-to-fight. Or so said the both the Lasi and the Mera Yaj-Hates. Don’t listen to these fools. They know nothing. And they will soon walk the path, anyway.
Over the years, both the Lasi and the Mera had gathered many a fine treasure and many a sacred thing that the Yaj-Hates and their acolytes preserved and protected, and among these things holy, none was holier, nor more secret, than the path.
The Lasi had a path.
The Mera had a path.
Yes, there was the well-hidden and only-whispered-about Lasi path, and there was the equally well-concealed and only-whispered-about Mera path.
These two paths shared a purpose: to aid the feet of the old and feeble as they set out on their final walk. Only the Yaj-Hate and his helpers knew the head and course of their respective paths, and none other than they (and those headed for death, of course) ever walked the path—the Yaj-Hate, to now and then sprinkle holiness on it, and his helpers to keep it clear of rocks and twigs and to trim the undergrowth.
None other must ever know the location of the path’s head, much less walk it. Should you stumble upon it, even though the members of both tribes were strictly forbidden by ancient law to enter the jungles to the east of their lands, and walk even a small portion of it, the punishment for so violating sacred tribal law and the sanctity of the path was crushed feet. And then, once the breaker of this law grew too feeble to contribute to the tribe he or she would have to crawl the path.
These paths led to life’s end.
Once a Lasi or Mera man or woman grew too feeble to contribute to the well-being of the tribe, once he or she had become a burden to others, the honorable and expected and eventually compulsory thing for them to do was to walk the path—guided by the Yaj-Hate if you were important enough or by one of his helpers if you were not—which after much weaving through the jungle led to and wove up the side of Myiammo Taung, the holy mountain, to eventually end at a sheer rock face as high as a two hundred warriors standing one on top of each other, down which the path walkers, once arrived, and after a brief or not so brief—depending on importance—sacred farewell ceremony, threw themselves to their deaths.
At times the already dead walked the path, though walked would not be the right word for they were carried. Should a child die of sickness, or should a warrior be slain in a fight, it was up to the Yaj-Hate’s helpers to carry the dead along the path all the way up the mountain, where, after the farewell ceremony, they would toss the little, or large, corpse over the edge and onto the pile far, far below.
More rarely, the alive was carried along the path and cast across to their death from atop Myiammo Taung. These were the very young who had been born perhaps missing one finger, or with one finger too many, or with a head too large or too small, or in some other way lame or deformed since such children, according to the Yaj-Hate and tribal custom, would always grow to be a burden to the tribe, a burden better tossed down the mountain sooner rather than later. Again, it fell upon the Yaj-Hate helpers to carry these newly born distortions up the path and to then cast him or her over the ledge and into death.
No parent or relative or friend could ever follow as they parted, they had to say their goodbyes at the edge of the village, whether to their old parent on his or her own feet, or to their dead or deformed child in the arms of the helpers.
All tears had to be cried within the village boundaries.
Quite a little mountain of bewildered Lasi and Mera skeletons had, over the centuries, gathered at the bottom of the two hundred warrior cliff.
Yes, the truth was that both tribes had a similarly guarded and protected sacred path climbing the same mountain to end at the same cliff. This was well-known by the Yaj-Hates on both sides. But as for the members of the tribes—the men, women and children—each knew their path to be the only one, and none knew of the others’ path. Except, of course, for the Yaj-Hates and their helpers, who knew everything (the Yaj-Hates), or most things (the helpers).
Even so, children are rarely too serious about anything, no matter how sacred, and while afraid of the path, since they all knew that those who walked it never came back, they would often accuse each other of being so dumb that they would have to walk the path, or inform each other that if they didn’t do what they were told, their parents would make them walk the path. Mostly jokingly, but sometimes not.
Also, “I should have you walk the path” was a common curse among both the Lasis and Meras. Never said within earshot of the Yaj-Hate, though.
The border between the two tribes was patrolled day and night by their respective warriors, Lasi vigilance to the north of it, Mera alertness to the south. No hunter or warrior, nor member or child, would ever cross the border on purpose (unless war was intended or in progress), but often enough, either by disorientation or some other accident, a Mera would stray into Lasi territory, or the other way around. Were this to be seen by the border guards, death always followed.
Now and then—at least once a generation, usually more often—war broke out between them, and at the end of it the border moved a few paces to the north or a few paces to the south, depending on who had won this time. Following such wars, the Yaj-Hates’ helpers spent weeks, if not months, carrying dead warriors up the path, and that is the main reason why helpers were always chosen from among strong boys and young men.
Such was the world of the Lasi and the Mera. And into this world, one day long ago, were born a Lasi girl who was named Myine, and a Mera boy who was named Arun.
Myine, as she grew up, turned out to be a handful for her parents, who of course loved her but whose patience was often worn very thin—if not out altogether—by her never ceasing questions, for she was more curious than anyone could ever remember a girl (or a boy, for that matter) to have been. She was often referred to as Myine the Curious among the Lasi.
Arun, on the other hand, although no less curious, didn’t say much. He did not ask questions. He preferred to see thing for himself. If he wondered about a plant or an insect or a rock or a tree or a fish, rather than ask about it, he would slip into the jungle or down to the lake to find what he was looking for and then either examine it then and there or bring it home for further study.
One day he brought home a beautiful, but very poisonous snake. This filled his father’s cup who then told him that he could no longer bring things home from the jungle, and why wasn’t he outside playing with the other children, anyway?
But telling Arun that he could not investigate the world around him was like telling Myine to stop asking questions. Quite the hopeless task.
And so Myine continued to ask questions and Arun continued to slip into the jungle to see things for himself.
As her young years passed Myine turned into a beautiful girl, worth much in her father’s opinion. And she was her mother’s pride. If only she wouldn’t ask so many questions. Her mother secretly pitied the man who would end up her husband, but nonetheless was already quietly counting the treasure that Myine would bring once she reached betrothal age, not so far off now.
As Arun reached young manhood he grew strong and agile, shaped by countless jungle days, pursuing, tracking, climbing, diving, investigating. And, he too, grew beautiful. He was the dream and desire of many a young Mera girl, and the hope of many of their mothers.
One morning Myine asked Hia, her mother, and not for the first time, “If they don’t have a path, what do the Mera do with their old men and women? Or perhaps they do have a path?”
“Of course not,” her mother answered. “I’ve told you before. Even if every Mera man, woman and child pooled their brains, they would not end up with enough of it to find a path. From what I’ve heard, their old men and women lie about in their huts, eating the food meant for the children and cursing everyone in the process.”
Then Hia added, “And don’t forget, Myine, our path was made by Ea-pe. Then hidden by Ea-pe so that we would not stumble upon it before our time. We are his children, Myine. The Mera have no true god, only rocks and sticks they scratch themselves with and then pray to. They have no god, only idols.”
Myine shook her head at such stupidity. But after some thought she said, as if to verify her suspicion, “Grandmother Kyine will soon walk the path.”
This brought her mother to stillness, for it was true. But it came as a surprise to her mother that Myine knew, or suspected. A pair of tears formed in Hia’s eyes. “Yes,” she said, without turning. “She will soon walk the path.”
Then Myine said, “Perhaps the Mera are not so stupid after all. I would not mind Grandmother not walking the path. She could stay with us. I would share my food with her.”
Her mother turned to her then, alarmed. “Don’t say that, Myine. Never say that. And never, ever so that the Yaj-Hate or his helpers hear you.”
“The way of the path must never, ever be questioned. Not even in jest. It is sacred law. Ea-pe gave us both path and law.”
Myine nodded. “Sorry,” she said.
“The Yaj-Hate and his helpers have good ears,” said Hia. “You must guard your tongue, or they will cut it out.”
Arun was concerned about Khin, his mother’s father. Although he was not all that old, he had never been of very good health, nor had he ever been as strong or as agile as other men his age. And now there were rumblings in the village about Khin and walks and paths, especially among those who had to work a little extra because Khin—while still eating his full share—could no longer do his full share of work.
One morning, Arun visited Khin, still recuperating in his hut from an infected finger, much better now, though. Tomorrow he would return to work, yes, that was the plan, though Khin’s plans had a habit of falling short or changing, much the victim of prevailing moods and winds.
Arun sat down and began to prepare some tea for Khin. Khin eased himself up onto his elbow and watched his grandson’s doings.
“You’re not out there tipping over rocks today? Or diving for crabs?” He said after a while.
Arun didn’t answer, but instead reached for two small cups, which he placed on the mat by Khin’s bed.
“Nothing to investigate today?” said Khin.
Arun looked up at Khin. “They say you’re soon to walk the path,” he said. “Is that true?”
Khin, never the bravest of men, didn’t care much for the topic. “There’s always a lot of talk,” he said.
“Not about you walking the path,” said Arun.
Khin leaned back into his pillow and studied the uneven ceiling of his hut for a spell. Then he said, “We all have to, one day.”
“Not at your age,” said Arun, now pouring the tea then holding one cup out for Khin to take.
“Thank you,” said Khin, easing himself up again, now into sitting. He blew on the surface of the green liquid. “Did you bring this tea?” he asked.
“Mom sent it,” said Arun.
“Thank her for me,” said Khin.
Arun said nothing. He sipped his own tea. “Are they really going to make you walk the path?” he said at length.
After another silence (though you could hear the birds outside, the always noisy birds, and some talking and shouting far away), Arun was surprised to hear what sounded like crying. He looked up to confirm, and he was not mistaken: his grandfather’s cheeks were shiny with tears, and now a sniffling noise to clear his nose.
“Grandpa,” said Arun, alarmed.
“It’s all right, Arun. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” said Khin and wiped his eyes with his right forearm.
“They are?” said Arun.
“Next full moon,” said Khin.
“Why?” said Arun. “You can still work.”
At that Khin removed his blanket to reveal a fresh infection in his left foot. Ugly and deep. The foot had begun to discolor. “I cannot walk, Arun. And my other foot has started to hurt as well.”
Arun could only shake his head slowly back, forth, back, forth, trying to absorb what he saw and what his grandfather was telling him.
“The healer came yesterday,” Khin said. “He shook his head just like you’re shaking yours now. Then he said there was nothing he could do, short of cutting them off.”
“Have you been bitten?” said Arun.
“Perhaps,” said Khin. “That’s what the healer asked also. But I don’t know. I don’t remember being bitten. And you would think I should remember such a thing.”
“This doesn’t just happen,” said Arun, nodding in the direction of Khin’s feet.
His grandfather agreed, there must be a cause.
“Ea-pe? You’ve been praying?” said Arun.
“Every day all the time, or every day recently?”
“Every day recently.”
“You’ve fallen out of favor, perhaps.”
“That’s what the Yaj-Hate said,” said Khin. “Long ago, he said.”
“What can we do?” said Arun. “Does mother know?”
“I don’t’ know,” said Khin. “And, no, she does not know.”
“And father, does he know?”
“No,” said Khin. “He doesn’t not know either.”
Arun looked at his grandfather’s feet again. “You may have to crawl.”
“I have thought about that.”
Arun regarded the small cup in his hands, and what little tea remained in it, for some time. Then he finished that as well and said, “I will help you.”
“What are you saying?
“If you must walk the path, you should walk the path. You should not be forced to crawl.”
“I forbid it,” said his grandfather.
“I will take care not to be seen,” said Arun. Then, a little proudly, “I know the path’s head.”
“I was afraid you would discover it sooner or later,” said Khin.
“I was not looking for it,” said Arun. “I was in the forest when the helpers brought little Myi. Remember? Who was born with only half a left foot.”
“I heard her cry from afar. She was not happy. I purposely walked in another direction, but they still came my way. I stepped off the path and into the brush. Here they came. They carried her in a green sheet, but you could see her face. So small, so alarmed at what was going on. Not happy about walking the path.”
“What were you doing in that part of the jungle?”
“Always looking,” said Khin.
“Did they see you?”
“Of course not.”
“But you know where the path begins?”
“I followed them for a little while. And then, yes, they came to it and parted the bushes that concealed it. Yes, I saw the head of the path. I know where it is.”
“That is a dangerous knowledge, Arun. You must tell no one.”
“And even so, Arun. I forbid it. You must not help me. You must not walk it with me. They would crush your feet if they found out.”
“I know,” said Arun. “But they will not find out.”
Khin shook his head in despair. “Promise me that you will obey. Promise.”
Arun hesitated, then said, “I cannot promise, grandfather. You must not crawl.”
“If I promise not to crawl. If I promise to use a cane or a crutch, will you promise not to help me? Will you promise to stay away?”
When Arun didn’t answer, Khin said. “The helpers will lead me to the path head, and at least one of them will follow me. They will see you, Arun. They will crush your feet.”
To put Khin’s mind at ease, Arun said, and meant it, “I promise.”
Recently, it had begun to dawn on Myine that perhaps the biggest crime her people could commit was to question the wisdom of the Yaj-Hate, which, as she had been taught, was the personified wisdom of tradition, the wisdom of history, the wisdom of Ea-pe.
The Yaj-Hate was sacred, and he was the law. So were his helpers.
But she had seen the fear in Hia’s eyes when she suggested that she would share her meals with her grandmother, if only she did not have to walk the path. Even thinking such thoughts, she realized, was breaking some law or other. Which precise law she was not sure, but she knew to would know: The Yaj-Hate.
She wished her father were still alive. She would have asked him. He would know. He had not been afraid. And being not afraid he had both killed and been killed by the tiger. He had been strong. It took four helpers to carry him out of the village for the path. They were not looking forward to this walk, she could tell, and she hated them for it.
Myine rarely cried, but seeing her father disappear among the trees, she did. The vastness of the empty cavern of her sundered heart was more than she could bear. Her mother cried too, but more for her own bad fortune than for the loss of her husband, that’s what Myine thought, even though she was only a child.
And now she wished more than anything that he was still alive, she would ask him about the path. She would question the path. She would question the wisdom of it. He would have answered, not cowered at the question. But without him there was no one to ask. She could not well ask the Yaj-Hate, she knew that. Nor his helpers. Nor her friends.
And there being no one at all to ask, this left her no choice. She knew what she had to do.
And so it was that when Yon, the infant girl, was bitten and soon died and then carried by a single helper out of the village for the path, Myine, already hiding in the jungle, followed.
She had hidden some ways off the village path the helpers and walkers would take leaving the village, and there, well-concealed, she had waited. Waiting she could hear the wail of Yon’s mother, crying her good-byes. They were on their way then. She crouched even closer to the ground, even farther behind the thicket, careful to step on earth only and not earth plus snake or earth plus twig.
While the distraught wail still reached her, and as if chasing him, here he came, the tall helper and his small bundle of dead girl. He took long steps this Thant, for that was his name. Tall and proud, this Thant, and in a hurry to get where he was going. He passed Myine’s thicket intent on his mission. He noticed nothing.
Once he was perhaps ten paces down the village path, Myine slipped out from behind the bush, and as silently and as quickly as she could set out after them. Thant and the little walker.
Thant walked fast. Eager, it seemed to be done with this. Almost too fast for Myine to follow, but not too fast. Too fast to follow quietly, though, she feared, for at times she had to run to keep up.
And then she lost him.
One moment he was twenty paces down the path, then he rounded a bend. Myine hurried to the bend not to lose him, but when she got there he and the little walker were gone. She stopped, turned back several paces. Stopped again and listened, trying her hardest to sift through the constant noises of the jungle for the sound of Thant’s feet. Birds screaming, monkeys chattering, and, yes, a snake slithering, a big one too, but she could not worry about that now, besides the snake was some ways off to her left. Another crashing, a deer perhaps. A wild pig? But there, there, to her right, feet, yes, feet. Thant’s long legs making his way through the brush. She looked about for a smaller path leading into the brush, but saw none. But now that she had recognized his feet, she could pin her ears to them, making them stand out against the remainder of loud jungle. And so, following his feet, she made her way through the brush as quickly and as quietly as she could. There it was, still, the sound of Thant’s feet. And there it was, and there it was, and there it was not.
Had he stopped? Had he heard her and stopped to listen? She stopped, too. Only jungle now. After many quick breaths she ventured forward again, one quiet step after another, and another, and another, and there: there was the reason the sound of Thant’s feet had ceased. There, beyond two small, intertwined trees, was the head of the path. Coming up to it and crouching for a better look, she saw that the path was smooth, almost as if swept. Brown against the green of the surrounding undergrowth. A pace or so wide, their holy path.
Still, even now, even after having already broken sacred law by following the helper, she hesitated to place her feet on the path. It was, she knew very well—for she had been told often enough—a crushing offence. Crushed feet. The deepest shame. To then crawl the path when old, or perhaps not so old. She hesitated some more, then hesitated no more. She set one foot on the path, then another, then began walking as fast, though as quietly, as she could. Thant would have made good way during her delay, she must hurry to catch up with him.
Luckily she made as little noise as Thant did on this smooth ground, narrower in places, almost covered by overhanging grass in others, but always smooth, always firm, always swept. She, too, made good way. Still, always with an eye ahead. She must not come too close, or, Ea-pe forbid, run into him. A long stretch of path ahead, yes, almost concealed by the tall grasses, but there just by that crevice in the rock to his right, again she saw the helper and his small cargo. Intent only on forward motion, no thoughts of behind him.
Weaving like a long brown snake across the forest floor, she could tell that the path always curved toward Myiammo Taung, and now she could also detect a soft incline of the swept ground she walked. To the mountain then, she thought. She nodded to herself as she walked, yes, that would be where the path would lead. The holy mountain.
Many careful paces later she spotted Thant again, shifting his little burden from one arm to another while suddenly looking back. Myine fell to the ground as softly as she could, hoping, hoping. She lay still for many breaths. When she finally rose and looked there was no Thant to see. He had not spotted her then. She could finally swallow.
Quickly then, down the path to the spot where Thant had turned and looked behind him, which was where the path veered more to the right, and was now very clear about its intent: upward.
So steeply here and there that the path was more like stairs than path. Weaving now back and forth up the broad and jungle-covered side of Myiammo Taung the path took her higher and higher. At times she had to stop to catch her breath. This was climbing more than walking. How, she asked herself, how had they managed to carry her father up these steps. They had been four, though, she reminded herself, with a stretcher. Carried by two—the path was too narrow for all four to carry—she imagined, while the other two rested. Yes, that is how she would have done it. The only sense to it.
Again, she spotted Thant up ahead, steadily climbing with his long, strong legs. Intent on his progress. Shifting his burden again from one arm to the other.
The jungle grew lighter as they rose up the mountain, the sun now touching ground here and there, and very hot when it did. She had not thought of water, as a fool, she told herself. For now, she was thirsty, and as if to make her thirstier still she now saw how Thant had again stopped to rest, and was now drinking deeply from his water pouch, his little burden momentarily resting on the ground.
There was nothing to do about that, she decided. Dumb to be sure, but nothing to do about it now. She hid behind a mossy trunk, alive with ants, until Thant had had his fill and rest and now set off again. Long strides on long legs.
The jungle grew thinner still, the sun warmer, her thirst stronger. The path, amazingly well kept—almost like a carpet here she thought—climbing higher and higher.
As the day turned overcast and with the low clouds very humid and warm, the rising path brought her further and further up the mountain.
And now, judging by she was not sure what signs precisely, she felt they were nearing the top. To be truthful, for being so holy, Myiammo Taung was not very tall. Not snow-covered or anything like the mountains farther to the north. Though not covered by the denser jungle, trees still climbed all the way up, she saw this and thanked the fates that this was so, or she would surely be spotted by Thant. Even so, the forest grew less and less dense the higher they rose, and she had to fall farther and farther back.
Then Thant stopped. Tall and silhouetted against the vast, tree-less sky behind him. Had he arrived? It seemed so, for he put Yon down on the ground, and then kneeled beside the little corpse. Myine stepped off the path and made a wide, silent half-circle to her right to move closer to Thant and his doings.
She found a usable thicket not a stone’s throw from the helper and the little girl. While Myine made her approach, Thant had brought out several things from his shoulder pouch, amulets, strung beads, a small cross made from bone (she gathered). Strips of colored cloth. All arranged now around Yon, just so. Thant rose and inspected his handiwork. Then he brought his hands together, and prayed. Silently at first, then aloud:
To thee we bestow this child
To thee she will fly
To thee she will come for comfort
By thee she will settle
A small noise, as of a thin twig breaking underfoot, to her right caught Thant’s ear as well as hers and he stopped his prayer and turned. Looking not in Myine’s direction but toward the trees beyond her. All was still. The wind, as if taking the blame, sighed through the higher branches and a fruit toppled and hit the ground not far from her: see, I told you so.
Thant, satisfied as to the cause of the noise, returned to his prayer:
Of blood too young to discolor
A life too young to beget
Of hearts that call her to your side
Of these I sing that you may hear
To thee I offer this life
As you saw fit to reclaim
Open then your hands to receive
Her sad and earthly remains
With that Thant slowly gathered his charms and returned them to his shoulder pouch. Then he walked over to the edge of the cliff and looked down, as if searching for something. Apparently finding what he was looking for, he returned to Yon and picked her up and with her in his arms, again walked over to the edge.
Here he began rocking her back and forth, from behind him to in front of him, back and forth and then he rocked her farther back than before, almost shoulder-high, and then, with a heave and an unleashing of tension, he shot her forward and let her go, and like a little arrow she shot up and out over the cliff, suspended, it seemed, for a while high in the gray air, then she began falling and then she was gone.
Myine was not sure what she had expected, but this was not it. A little shocked, she nonetheless found herself listening for the sound of Yon’s body landing, for surely it must land. It would not be caught by Ea-pe midflight, would it? But there was no sound. Maybe so, then. Maybe indeed.
But no, there was the faint, though unmistakable crash of the little body finding the ground below. Thant stood almost leaning over the edge, looking down, inspecting things. Satisfied, he turned and with his long, powerful strides set out back down the path.
Myine crouched and held her breath, waiting for Thant to move out of sight. She could see the beginning of his descent, the tall body slowly sliced into less and less tall from below until only his head remained, and then, it too, quite abruptly, was gone. She waited another few long breaths before she rose.
Slowly, she approached the edge. The view from here was spectacular. She could see much of the world. Maybe all of it.
She reached the ceremonial ground and the edge. Leaning over she almost caught vertigo, so steep and so sharp was the drop. The height of many, many men, maybe her whole village, maybe more. No wonder it took so long for Yon to reach the ground below.
The ground below: not so much ground as small white and gray and bony mountain. As it dawned on her, Myine swallowed: the path walkers. A small mountain of path walkers in the shadow of the larger one. Gathering there, far below, for she could not imagine how long. Since time began?
But, she realized, this would mean that those who were not, like Yon, carried and tossed over the edge by a helper. Yes, she thought, that would mean that they must have leaped of their own accord.
She tried to imagine.
Old and tired, perhaps sick. And the path was not easy to walk. Hard at times. It could have taken days.
To have made it all the way here. To have left the village, with its rich sustenance of family and friends behind. Not only that, with a full life lived left behind. To have left all that and climbed all the way here, to then leap.
To then leap.
She imagined leaping, but could not. She loved life too much. And would she love life less a lifetime from now? She did not think so. So would she leap? But they must have leaped? Or had they been pushed? Did the helper escort them just to make sure they made it over the edge and down upon the bone mountain below? She thought that must be the case.
But some, surely, leaped on their own. Again, she tried to imagine. Who had been the first to leap? And why? Was it honor? Was it Ea-pe’s will? But what if honor did not matter, or if you disagreed with Ea-pe?
Yes, she told herself, the Yaj-Hate or his helpers would make sure. Yes, she was sure of this. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but this she knew.
She looked down again. The mound of skeletons, the bone mountain, was large. It was also the home of carrion birds, she saw now. Several had already settled on or near Yon, bickering, picking at her skin and flesh and eyes. Yes, her eyes. Other birds, larger, drawn by the feast, circled far below and settled. The smaller birds, knowing their turn at the table was over, grabbed one last quick bite then moved over to let the buzzards and vultures settle things between them.
She could watch this no longer. Stepping back from the edge she realized that she was crying. She blinked two tears away. Remembered Yon running around naked laughing. Always tripping over things, that was Yon.
And now this. This was not right.
Then, from somewhere behind her, a soft dislodging. A stone shifted. Something bigger froze. Something trying not to be heard.
Arun had promised not to help Khin walk the path, and he would keep his promise, for a promise given was unbreakable law. This he knew, and would honor. But he had promised nothing about not finding out more about the path and what Khin might expect to encounter. And find out he must. Whatever law would have to be broken.
If Khin were soon to walk the path—next full moon, he’d said—Arun had to know where it led. He had to know what his grandfather, and all others who had walked, or had been carried, walked toward. And he had to know why or how no one ever returned from this walk.
As he had told Khin, he knew the location of the path’s head. In fact, he had returned to find it again on several occasions. Just to make sure. It always took a bit of looking for it was well concealed. But it had not moved. Each time he looked for it he found it.
And now, he decided, he would find the path again and he would enter it and walk it. Today.
Although his first impulse was to head directly for it, and start walking, experience cautioned him to think this through first. He did.
And so, instead of heading directly there, he went home first; for he had no idea how long the path was. He would need food; he would need water. The trick would be to gather this without giving his intentions away, for little escaped his mother’s notice. Perhaps, he hoped, she would not be home.
But Thuya was home. She always was, it seemed. Entering casually—as someone who would never break ancient law, who would not even dream of walking the path—he greeted her.
“Did you see father?” she said.
“Is he getting better?”
“No,” said Arun.
“He told me he would be back on his feet today,” she said.
“I don’t think so.”
His mother shook her head. She had never really seen eye to eye with her father, feeling—Arun had overheard her tell her husband—that Khin was being punished for something he must have done. Why else was he weak, why else did he always seem to have accidents when others did not.
“It’s not because he’s lazy,” added Arun.
Again, casually, he reached for the water pouch. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Exploring,” he answered.
“I don’t know. The day is very warm already.”
“It will probably rain,” said Thuya.
She shook her head again, this time in her I-give-up-on-you manner. Then she said what Arun hoped she would. “Well, then you’d better bring something to eat.”
A little later he left the hut with enough water for two days, if it came to that, and with enough food for two days as well, if he ate sparingly.
Several of the tribe greeted him as he headed for the southern edge of the village. He waved back, knowing they—just like his mother—were also quietly shaking their heads at his restless explorations.
Once in the jungle proper he knew where to go. An hour or so later he had found it, the head of the path. Here he stopped. He looked around and listened for many moments. He was about to do the unthinkable, and this was catching up with him: the unthinkable. And he wanted to, had to, make sure, and doubly sure, and sure again, that there were no witnesses.
Satisfied that he was alone—amidst the subtle chaos of the many lives uninterested in his plans and doings—he now approached the path, bent the covering foliage aside and placed his left foot on the path. It was smooth, almost like swept, he thought. His right foot followed. Then a step, thinking now that were the Yaj-Hate or his helpers to see him, they would crush his feet. It was an unreal notion, both that this might happen and that he was, really was, breaking such a deeply held taboo.
And to have your feet crushed? He could not imagine.
Then, eyeing the path ahead, curiosity got the better of him, again. He now bent down to take a closer look: the path was indeed swept. He could see the fine individual grooves of broom strands in the packed dirt. To think. The helpers must be sweeping this often. How often? Daily? Would they be here now, just up ahead, sweeping? The thought chilled him and almost made him turn.
Though he didn’t.
But he did realize the he must be very careful, must listen for any sound the helpers might make. He must not be seen.
He must not be seen.
The path was very easy to follow. They had done a very good job, the helpers. Of course, it had to be easy to follow, it was mainly walked by the old and feeble. Or by the young and strong carrying the dead, or the newly born though deformed.
Long and straight for many parts, then suddenly serpentine for a while, as if to disorient the walker. By design? he wondered. Always partly covered, but always smooth, swept, well-tread.
He stopped often to listen. At times, especially of a morning, the jungle din could smother almost any human noise—the screeching of birds, the chattering of monkeys, the rustle of deer and wild pigs as they made their own paths through the undergrowth, the buzzing of flies and mosquitos, the sighing of wind high in the trees—it was a constant river of sound that, if you were unaccustomed to it, would swallow footsteps and even quiet voices. But Arun was not unaccustomed, he knew how to filter this river out and listen for the sound that did not belong, the human sound. Clumsy human sounds.
But listening, he heard none. He was growing increasingly assured that he was alone. Of course, they could be farther up the path, he would have to stay vigilant. Would have to stop and listen often.
After a while he paused to drink some water, and to listen again. He only heard jungle.
The path was approaching Myiammo Taung. Surely, he thought, for this made sense to him, the holy mountain was its destination. The farther he walked, the more certain he grew. Where else was there to go?
And as if eager to confirm his thoughts, soon thereafter, the path veered left and then began to climb in earnest, step-like in places. Still as well-swept, though. He stopped again to listen, and to look. No sound or sight of Yaj-Hate helpers. He took another swallow of water from the pouch, and set out again.
The jungle was less dense here, and the sun seemed to grow warmer as he climbed. Here and there the sunlight reached all the way through the thinning overhead foliage to dazzle the ground. He praised his foresight in bringing water for he could see no source of it here, not on this long, steadily rising side of the holy mountain.
The path grew very steep in places and he wondered whether the older and more feeble of the walkers could negotiated these steps on their own? The helpers would help. Perhaps that was so. Yes.
Half-way up the mountain the jungle grew thinner still, and he could now almost see all the way to the top. No helpers, no one sweeping the path. He was truly alone, then. Still, he would not relax, the fact that he could now see farther, meant he could be seen more easily as well. In fact, he crouched a little as he proceeded up the winding path, as if stealthily pursuing something.
Clouds now moved across the sun. He looked to the south. More clouds gathering there. Rain then. Perhaps. The gray, as usual, brought humidity. He would walk slower, to avoid sweating too much. Those who sweat need more water. He knew this from experience.
He set out again. Farther and farther up the mountain. Step by step.
At one point, not watching the path, but up ahead for helpers, he almost stepped on a viper. Good thing he missed him. The viper, startled perhaps, slid off and into the undergrowth. Not interested in Mera leg today.
He had to be more careful. Step by careful step the path wound farther up the mountain. No one up ahead.
Fewer trees now. More brush. More bushes. Harder to hide. And now, up there, hardly any trees, boulders, the summit. He approached even more carefully.
Then he froze. He was almost at the summit now. The jungle din was now below him and no longer able to conceal sounds. He stopped, the better to listen. And there, yes, again, there it was. A human sound. Words.
Then nothing. The nothing. Then again. For certain: words.
He stood stock still, hardly even breathing. He listened as with every cell in his body. There again, words, softly, almost as soft as silence, but not silence: words. They came from the summit. From beyond the boulders up ahead. Helpers then, after all? He felt dangerously exposed on the open path and moved off it for the brush. Crouching now. Concealed. Debating. Should he return? Should he approach?
The words reached him like a soft river. Like a prayer. He could not make out the words, but the flow was prayer-like.
He had come this far. He had come to find out. Carefully, he decided, very carefully he would approach.
Harder here to walk silently. Always the little thing underfoot that would either scurry away or break under his weight if he were not careful. Still, step by silent step, he paralleled the path, and approached the now louder and louder voice. It was a prayer. He was now sure of it, a prayer in what sounded like his own language, and still sounded like another language. Again he stopped, the better to listen. Yes, a prayer. But not in Mera tongue. No, he realized, this prayer was spoken in Lasi. The same and not the same. Some sounds rounder than Mera sounds, others with a sharper edge. The same words, differently said.
He veered to the right to reach the summit from behind a crop of rock, a little taller than he. They would conceal him.
Reaching them, the words were now even clearer. Yes, Lasi. A Lasi prayer. Carefully he leaned to his right, around the rock, just far enough to see.
And there he was. A tall Lasi man, standing over a small bundle on the ground, surrounded by Yaj-Hate trinkets. A Lasi helper then. And the bundle, he could see now, a young girl. Dead. Carried here.
A dead Lasi girl carried here by the Yaj-Hate helper.
The thought grew and then detonated in his mind: the helper had carried a dead girl up here. That said, screamed, that the Lasi also had a path, and that it, too, ended here atop Myiammo Taung.
Again: They, too, have a path.
He had always been told the opposite. By his parents. By the Yaj-Hate. By the helpers. The Lasi let their old and decrepit lie about and eat the food of children, to die in their huts at the expense of the tribe. The Lasi knew no better. He had always known this.
But here, and the words came clearly now, here was a Lasi helper praying for a dead girl. The dead girl a Lasi path walker.
The Lasi had a path.
He pulled his head back to behind the rock, then leaned against it for balance and support. The Lasi had a path.
Pulling even farther back, he inadvertently stepped on a dry twig who complained with a snap. Arun froze and remained frozen for many breaths. He dared not look to see if the helper, who had now fallen silent, had heard.
Arun heard no feet approaching. There was just wind, and the cries of birds high above him.
Then, in this silence, there was the almost soundless dislodging of a small stone. He didn’t know how he knew but no animal made that sound. This was not done by the helper. The sound came from his direction, though farther away from the ledge. He peaked around the other side of the rock for the source of the sound. And saw it: the back and long black hair of a girl. Of a girl, like him, spying on the doings of the Lasi helper. She moved again, and he caught the sight of her face. None that he knew. Another Lasi, then.
Again, Arun looked around the right side of the rock. Carefully.
The helper now stooped to collect his amulets and trinkets, which he placed in his shoulder pouch.
He then stepped up to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Then returned to the dead girl and gathered her in his arms, and approached the cliff again.
Here he began rocking her back and forth, from far back to far forward to even father back to up in the air now and out and over the edge of the mountain. The Lasi helper had thrown the girl down the mountain side.
The silence that followed was near perfect, finally broken by the soft crash of the tossed bundle finding earth. The Lasi helper stood for some time looking down the far side of the mountain, then, apparently satisfied that all was in order, he turned around and began his trek back down the Lasi path.
The Lasi path. The Lasi had a path. He still had trouble coming to grips with that notion.
Then the girl moved again, stepping out from behind her own cover and now approached the edge. He shifted a little to his right, the better to see what she was doing.
She reached the edge, and was now looking down the side. And looking down the side. And looking down the side. He shifted again, and now, he, too, dislodged a small stone, and she, too, seemed to know that no animal had made that sound.
Myine whipped around to catch the top of a head disappear from the side of a rock that looked much the same as the one she herself had used as cover, though farther to her left. She froze as a cold hand seized her heart: she had been followed, it squeezed. There had been another helper. She should have known, should have been more careful. Now they would, she realized with the same escaping breath, the one that now sought to suffocate her, crush her feet. They would crush her feet.
Could she run? No, it would be of no use. He had recognized her, that was certain. He must have been observing her long enough. Even would she manage to escape him, they would track her down, and they would crush her feet. They would crush her feet.
She coldly accepted this fate. So be it. And said, loudly:
No one came out. So she said it again, “Come out from behind there. I have seen you. You no longer need to hide.”
And now he stepped out from behind the rock, the young man, no more than a boy, really. The Yaj-Hate helper who was no helper that she recognized. And this made absolutely no sense to her.
Well versed in asking questions, and true to that nature, she heard herself ask, and loudly still, “Who are you?”
“Arun,” said the boy, the young man, or a little of both.
“Arun,” she repeated, with her own way of treating the name.
“Arun,” he repeated, in his way of treating the name.
“You are Mera,” she said, she asked, she proposed.
“And you, Lasi,” he said in his odd way of speaking.
“I am,” she said. Then, “What. What are you doing here?”
“That,” he answered, looking around him, as if making sure there were no others around, then directly at her again, “That is my question for you.”
Then he approached her. Slowly.
Seeing that the boy was no Lasi, she suddenly realized with such force and relief that she had to sit down, in fact she more fell than sat down: they are not going to crush my feet.
Almost upon her now, he looked down on her where she now sat. “What is the matter?” he said. “Are you ill? Are you a path walker?”
She shook her head. “No, not ill. No, not a path walker.”
“You seem weak,” he said.
“I am thirsty,” she answered. “I am very thirsty.”
At that the boy un-shouldered his water pouch and handed it to her. She took it, felt the great cool weight of it, there was much water in it. She brought the bone-spout to her lips and drank. And drank. And drank.
“Drink as much as you want,” said the boy. “Finish it, why don’t you?”
She looked up at him. He was smiling. She gave some fleeting thought to indeed finishing the water, but there was too much of it left. Instead she wiped her mouth with her forearm and handed the now lighter pouch back to him. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he said, re-shouldering it. Then he asked again, just as she asked again, in an almost unison: “What are you doing here?”
Only he also added the question: “And who are you?”
“I am Myine,” she said. “I followed the Yaj-Hate helper who carried Yon onto the path.”
“The little girl,” said Arun.
“Bitten,” said Myine.
“You have a path,” said Arun.
“We do, too,” he said.
“Yes. Only, our Yaj-Hate does not allow us to walk the path. Unless we are old or dead. They will crush your feet if you are caught.”
“They crush our feet, too,” she said. “If you are caught walking the path. Unless you are old or dead.” She smiled at that.
“And still,” he said. Then falling silent to consider. “And still, you walked it?” A little incredulous.
He regarded her for quite a little while before he said, “You are brave.”
“Or stupid,” she said. He laughed at that.
Then offered his hand to help her stand.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m comfortable here.”
He smiled, withdrew his hand, and then walked over to the edge, looked down the cliff. He stood very still, very silent, for very long.
His back as still as a rock.
The thing, the mound, the pile, the small mountain far, far down this sheer rock face was—he had to force himself to trust his eyes—what was down there was bones. Skeletons. Skulls. Hundreds, thousands perhaps. Perhaps many times that. And the words came to him, they rose with certainty: Path walkers all. This cliff, this drop is the end of the path, this is what walking the path means. And this is what is expected of Khin. What is expected of all who set foot on the path. To walk it, and climb it—some to crawl it—all the way here and then to leap, or fall—to their deaths.
He turned to look at the girl who called herself Myine with her strange tongue, “They leap,” he said.
She looked up at him, then past him into the sky—at some cloud perhaps—and nodded, softly, sadly. The wind had stilled; he could hear her hair whisper with the movement of her head. “Yes, they leap,” she said.
He looked back down the cliff face and tried to understand how far it was to fall, to understand how many thoughts you might think on your way down. Regrets? Dreams? Prayers?
The drop was as far as his village was wide, perhaps farther. He tried to imagine leaping, feeling the wind of falling as you gathered speed, bracing for—or perhaps welcoming—the impact, the end of the air, the bottom of the sky, the mountain at the foot of the mountain of the many dead Mera and Lasi path walkers.
He turned again to the girl. She was still looking at him. “So you do have a path, too,” he said, as if the knowledge had just caught up with him.
Then he added, “I was told, we are all told, that you do not.”
“We are told the same,” she said. “That the Mera were too dumb to have a path.”
He laughed, but more at how she pronounced “dumb” than at what she said. Her “dumb” sounded not a little like the way the Mera pronounces the word for “cat in heat.”
His laugh startled her, and for a moment he was about to explain, then changed his mind. “That’s what we were told about you. Too dumb. Too cruel, too lazy.”
“By the Yaj-Hate,” she said.
“And his helpers,” he added.
Then he said, “Are you hungry?”
She said, “Yes.”
So he walked over to where she sat, and sat down beside her. He took out the bread, the cheese, the nuts, and the two fruits he had brought, and spread them out on the ground. “Help yourself,” he said.
When she hesitated, he said, “They are not poisoned.”
Which earned him a surprised at first, then appreciative glance. She reached for the mango, and began to eat it. He reached for the other and did the same.
“Myine,” he said between bites.
“That is your name?”
“Mine is Arun.”
“You said so.”
“Yes, I did.”
“And what are you doing here, Arun?” she said between bites.
“I had to know,” he said.
“Khin, my grandfather, is ailing, and is soon to walk the path. Next full moon, he told me. I had to know where it led.”
“Now you know,” she said after a little while.
“Now I know.”
He broke off some bread from the loaf, and handed it to her. She took it and in turn broke off a smaller piece and brought it to her mouth.
“It is not right,” he said after a while.
“Yes. It is not right.”
He broke off a piece of bread for himself. “Why?”
“Why is it not right, do you think?”
She thought about that for a while. “It is not right that those who have given their lives to the tribe, to their children, to their relatives, should be discarded like so much debris when they can no longer contribute. You saw the pile down there.”
“It’s a mountain.”
“Yes, it’s a mountain. They should be allowed their rest, in comfort. They have earned it.”
Arun was about to reply, when Myine, looking out into the eastern sky, as if seeing the past in it, continued, “When I was little,” she said, “I always wondered why they never came back. We would see them off, we would walk with them to the edge of our village, then wave as they followed the helper into the jungle—the helper leading them to the secret mouth of the path, I now realized, and then up the mountain.
“And that was always the last we saw of them, the path walkers. I would ask my father, often, why they never came back. You know what he would tell me?”
“I can guess,” he said.
“The path leads to a happier place, he would tell me. A place where mangos drop into your open hand. Where the river water is so clear and light that you cannot help but laugh when you drink it.”
“Your father has a way with words,” said Arun.
“My father had a way with words,” said Myine.
“He walked the path?”
“He was carried. He killed a tiger, but it killed him, too.”
“I am sorry.”
“It took two pairs of helpers. He was a strong man, must have been very heavy to carry.”
“Heavier still to throw over the edge.”
“Onto the pile below,” she said.
“I was always told the path led into the clouds,” he said. “That those who our dear Yaj-Hate lead onto the path were walking skyward to bliss. A forever bliss. For a true reward for a life well lived. That’s what the Yaj-Hate usually said at the farewell ceremony. A true reward for a life well lived.”
“To be discarded,” said Myine.
“In effect, yes,” agreed Arun.
After that, they finished the meal in silence. Arun offered Myine some more water, which she accepted.
Arun drank some, too.
Had they been more alert, and not embraced by their thoughts, by the tragedy of what each had discovered, they would have heard them. But they did not. Not until.
Arun heard them first. He turned to Myine to warn her but through the corner of his eye he knew that it was already too late. They had already arrived, standing not fifty paces from them, the two Mera helpers, looking at them. And when Arun turned his head fully to face them, he recognized them both. The shorter, stocky and strong and with a broom in his hand, was called Ohnmar. The other, the broom-less one, taller, but also strong, was called Arun, just like him. And they, naturally, recognized him. Incredulously.
They were both fully grown men. Larger than and stronger than either Arun or Myine. And now, by Ohnmar dropping his broom and by slowly moving apart they signaled their intentions to Arun. They meant to capture them, both.
By now Myine, too, had seen them, and looked at Arun, wide-eyed.
“Myine,” said Arun. “As fast as you can, run for your path. I don’t think they will follow you.”
“But you,” she started.
“Run,” screamed Arun at her. “Run.”
She did. She sprung to her feet and dashed for the Lasi path. Ohnmar moved to cut her off, but now Arun was on his feet as well and he rushed the Mera helper and by speed alone, if not by strength, knocked him to the ground. Myine had stopped to watch. “Run, you idiot,” screamed Arun.
She did. Vanished down the Lasi path.
The helper Arun was now upon him, while Ohnmar was scrambling to his feet with the clear intent to pursue Myine. Arun managed to shake off the helper and again rushed Ohnmar, dove for his legs, and again brought him to the ground.
Then his world slipped sideways and into black.
And the stone that Arun the helper now held in his hand was stained with the blood of Arun the unconscious.
She heard the scuffle behind her and stopped to look. “Run, you idiot,” screamed the boy Arun. And she did. Her feet flew down the path knowing now that they would pursue her, the two helpers that had come from nowhere, one with a broom in his hand. They were sweeping the path, she managed to think between breaths. And then she thought of nothing but speed in the language of feet.
Many, many quick breaths later she dared stop and turn around. The path up the mountain was helper-free and still. Nothing moving on it. No one following. Safe then. Still, she continued running. Then stopped and turned again. And listened. To no one following. She gathered her breath. Then set out again, walking this time but at a quick pace.
She almost didn’t see Thant until it was too late. But she was lucky, she saw him just before the path bent to the right. He seemed in no particular hurry now, intent on his own feet, lost perhaps in helper-thoughts. But she froze, in case he’d turn around. She fell down to hug the earth. From where she lay she could not see whether Thant had heard her, but once she heard his feet not stop down the path, she knew he had not.
Still, she remained on the ground for many, many breaths. She had been thoughtless, stupid, and idiot indeed. They would have crushed her feet.
Then came another thought. This one with a cold certainty:
They will crush his feet.
Most of the way back to the Mera village they carried the still unconscious Arun. Ohnmar by his arms, Arun the helper by his legs. At times, when they needed a rest, they took turns to drag him by arms alone, scraping his heels on the path, leaving long, parallel tracks that after a while—as the skin of his heels wore off—were moistened by Arun’s blood.
Much hard work later they carried Arun to their Yaj-Hate’s hut, where they let him fall to the ground, moaning a little now and beginning to come to.
Htin, the Mera Yaj-Hate, wanted to know what this commotion was all about, for a growing throng of villagers had followed the helpers and their cargo from when they first entered the village and all the way into the Yaj-Hate compound. Now they stood around in a large semi-circle energized by shared curiosity.
Arun the helper walked up to the Yaj-Hate and whispered in his ear. Htin’s face drained of all blood—a sure sign that rage was soon to follow.
“The water cage,” he said. “Wake him up and place him there.”
The susurrus of the villagers was like a wind in fresh leaves. Like applause. The water cage. The water cage. Arun had broken some law, though no one knew which one. A serious law, though. The water cage.
One of Htin’s other helpers threw a pail of water in Arun’s face, which made him cough and moan some more and then open his eyes. Blankly at first, but then, as the surroundings began to register, more and more uncomprehendingly, at the Yaj-Hate, at the many villagers who still rustled among themselves in excitement—they had always known that Arun would come to no good, the way he could never sit still—and at the helpers who now approached him to carry out the Yaj-Hate’s order.
Four helpers now. Arun tried to resist, to kick a little, but he had not made it all the way back yet and both kicks and flails were more like gestures than the real thing. Each helper to a limb, they lifted Arun and carried him to the water cage.
The water cage was named for its door and was not really a cage. It was a hole dug into the ground wide enough for a standing man, perhaps two pressed close together, and filled with water so that only his face, if he leaned his head back, broke the surface. This hole was then covered by a well-made door made of strong wooden slats tied together to a trellis secured to the ground.
The water cage was a punishment for grave infractions, primarily theft. It was rarely used. Members of the tribe rarely stole, or they were rarely caught.
Again, they deposited Arun on the ground, and one of the helpers untied the trellis, lifted it up to allow entry. This time Arun’s resistance was more than token, he fought as if for his life, but four grown men against one boy are not good odds, and soon Arun could feel his burning heels and feet and legs enter the tepid water, then his torso and arms, and then they let him go.
His feet found the slippery bottom, but it was too far down to allow breathing. He tried to stand on his toes, but his face was still below the water’s surface. The cage was too narrow to allow arm movements to keep him afloat—far too narrow for swimming.
He needed to scream, but his scream needed air. He tried to draw breath but only drew a lungful of water into violent coughing and suddenly several helper arms reached down for him and pulled him up to allow breathing.
Another helper soon arrived with a pail to scoop out enough water to keep him alive. As the water level slowly dropped, Arun had the presence of mind to bend his knees to make himself shorter and so give him more breathing room. This, however, was a trick the helpers had seen before, and they began to slowly return water to the hole, forcing Arun to stand up straight, and even to lean his head back to keep his nose above water. They were good at this, the helpers.
Satisfied that he was not going to drown, they finally put the trellis back and secured it to the pegs on the ground. There was no escaping. And to make double sure of that, one helper remained as guard.
Arun was now fully awake. His head pulsed with pain. They had hit him up there on the mountain, hit him from behind, a stone or club. They had carried him home. Or dragged him, which was why his heels also pulsed with pain. Raw and fierce.
But more importantly, they knew: He had walked the path. They knew that he had walked the path and they would crush his feet. This was a certainty.
He was in the water cage. That was another certainty. Realizing this he braced for the inevitable leeches, but none clung to him as yet that he could feel. Those who were sentenced to more than a day or two in the water cage would emerge almost black with them. The leeches would come, he knew that. He only hoped they would pull him out of the cage before the leech-word spread.
And having just thought that, there was the first one. He scraped it off with his hand, but lost his balance in the process, gulping down a big mouthful of water. Another one, he scraped that off, too. Leech-word getting out already and spreading fast.
Arun spent the rest of the day, and the full night, fighting the black biters and suckers. There was little he could do about those on his lower legs, he just could not reach them without breathing water, and the hole was too narrow to let him scrape them off with his feet.
By midnight he gave up on his legs altogether, and was only pulling those off that attacked his chest and arms, and those he could reach on his back. By morning he was drained, on the verge of simply giving up altogether. Still, he clawed a new bite and pulled another leech off, thinking briefly, crazily, of biting back.
The sky above was now light again. To his right he could see the head and shoulders of the guarding helper. The helper did not look at him. Face set in stone, looking straight ahead. Guarding.
Another head and set of shoulders came into view then, closer now, the full body: Htin. The Yaj-Hate.
“Take him out,” he said to the helpers that always seemed to surround him.
Two helpers untied the trellis and another two reached down for him. They pulled him up and out and away from the water cage. Once out and on the ground two other helpers came with embered sticks which they used to burn off the leeches. They did not like the heat and let go almost immediately. Arun could hear the plop, plop, plop as the helpers threw them back into the water. Crazily he decided to count the plops but could not follow through, the freshly spreading pain now gaining the upper hand.
Then they stopped pulling leeches from his body. None left then. He could not tell. His heels still burned, his head still hurt, and the rest of his body stung from the aftermath of a thousand bites.
“Arun,” said the Yaj-Hate, loudly.
Arun looked up at him, and then saw, too, that curious villagers had gathered again. And there, too, were Thuya, his mother, and Lwin, his father, looking down on their son with unmasked anxiety. They seemed to know what was coming. Word must have spread. He had walked the path.
“Arun,” said the Yaj-Hate again, louder still. Looking straight down at him.
Arun realized that the Yaj-Hate expected him to answer. “Yes,” he said.
“My helpers tell me that you have walked the path. Is that true?”
What was there to gain by denying it? Two helpers would bear witness against him. He had walked the path. Lying was another crime he might be better off not adding to what he had already done.
“Yes,” he said.
“Walking our path before your time is one of the most serious offenses against our tribal law, are you aware of that?” said the Yaj-Hate. Not only to Arun, now, but for the benefit of what must have been, by now, the entire village congregating around the conversation.
Arun realized that this was now a trial more than anything else. Guilt would be established and sentence would be passed. Pride told him to get to his feet. Not to face this on his back.
He rose onto his elbows, then sat up, then clambered onto unsteady feet, heels screaming in protest. Two helpers quickly moved to his side to ensure he did not try to escape or attack.
“Yes,” said Arun. “I know.”
The cry from the surrounding villagers came from his mother. Arun looked over at her. His father now cradling her for comfort. The shame of it. The pain of it.
“You admit then to breaking our ancient law forbidding any member of our tribe whose time has not come to walk the path?”
“And so I find you guilty,” said the Yaj-Hate. “And so I sentence you to the crushing of feet.”
His mother screeched again, and now cried openly, Lwin’s embrace no longer able to stem her tide.
“Also,” screamed the Yaj-Hate. Loudly enough to frighten a flock of birds who took to the sky from a nearby tree in a small, colorful cloud. “Also,” he screamed again. “Also, you have broken a law even more serious.”
The villagers hushed. This was news. What could be worse?
“You have, have you not, shared the secret of our path with our enemy?”
This came as a surprise to Arun. A surprise that finally seem to breathe the pain away and out of his head and replacing it with the image of Myine, that Lasi girl. He had forgotten all about her. And yes, they had shared the secrets of each other’s paths. How did he know?”
He did not know how best to answer.
“Have you not?” screamed the Yaj-Hate again.
Arun looked over to his parents, then at the rest of the village. Many now open-mouthed and hungry for more. Well, let’s not disappoint.
“Yes,” said Arun. “Yes, I and a Lasi woman shared our knowledge of the paths. I told her of our path, and she told me of theirs.” And now turned his head around and said, louder, to the villagers: “They have a path, too. The Lasi have a path too.”
Then his world slipped sideways again, and into black. A helper had struck him from behind with a club, all the while the Yaj-Hate was screaming, “That is a lie. That is a lie. The Lasi does not have a path. They have never had a path, and they never will. The treasonous boy is lying.”
The Yaj-Hate drew a long breath. “I sentence this traitor to crushed feet for walking the path and to abandonment for divulging Mera secrets to a Lasi. Sentence to be carried out at next full moon.”
Abandonment was the tribe’s punishment for repeated serious infractions against tribal law. It was not only an expulsion from the tribe, but it was also, in effect, a death sentence. Taken far into the jungle, far away from the tribe, the sentenced man or woman was then left there to survive as best he or she could. Were he or she ever to approach the village, they would be captured and killed.
Few survived long outside the protection and support of the tribe. Those who were resourceful enough to feed themselves soon fell prey to bites or predators, the unresourceful eventually starved to death.
It was also a rare punishment; many a year would pass without an abandonment passed on an offender.
Arun was the first in seven years.
Never, however, had the sentence of crushed feet and abandonment been combined. It meant certain death, for how, how could the boy possibly survive.
His mother shrieked again. Arun, on the ground and still, heard nothing.
The next full moon was eight days away.
Arun, when he again came to, found himself not back in the water cage but on a low and not uncomfortable cot in a hut somewhere in the Yaj-Hate’s compound. A helper sat on the ground by the entry, another helper stood outside. He opened his eyes upon a world that held nothing but pain.
Pain in his head, at the back of his skull, where a fresh wound still oozed blood, though more slowly now. Pain in his heels that in places had both skin and flesh worn off almost down to the bone from the helpers dragging him down the path. Pain all over his body where the leeches had bit and sucked. Another wave of unconsciousness arose and he welcomed it as he sank.
Htin, the Mara Yaj-Hate, upon returning to his compound with the traitor Arun, sent an urgent message to his Lasi counterpart by his most trusted helper and by the secret route. His message called for a meeting between them, Htin and Myo, the Lasi Yaj-Hate. Htin had grave news to share. The matter was urgent and could not wait.
The helper left immediately and returned before dawn the following morning, worn to the brink of collapse from running.
“Did Myo reply?” Htin wanted to know.
“Yes, Lord. He did.”
“What is his reply?”
“Myo said that he will be here tomorrow at dawn.”
“Good,” said Htin. “You may go rest now.”
“Thank you, Lord.”
Myine slowly rose from hugging the path, listening all the while. No sound of helper feet now. He was a safe distance away, then. Again chiding herself for her stupidity, she resumed her walk, though much slower this time, and more alertly. This way she made it all the way back to the mouth of the path unseen, and from there she made it back to her village by nightfall, by a very circuitous route and taking care not to be seen.
When she stepped into her hut, she found Hia almost frantic with worry. She had not seen her daughter since morning, and no one she asked had seen her either since then.
“Where were you?” she asked over and over.
“Exploring,” Myine said, also over and over.
“You must not,” began her mother.
“I must not what, Mother?”
“Frighten me like this,” she said after a while that saw a tear or two. Whether born from anger or relief or love, Myine could not tell. But she was moved to apologize.
“I’m sorry, Mother. I should have told you. I should have returned sooner.”
“Where did you go?”
“The jungle,” she said.
“Of course, the jungle,” said Hia. “Where in the jungle?”
“The lake,” lied Myine. “The lake shore.”
“What is there to explore by the lake? Other than good ways to drown.”
“Frogs,” lied Myine.
Hia sat down on her cot in exasperation. “I will never understand you, girl.”
“Don’t worry, Mother,” said Myine. “I’m not so sure I understand me myself.”
Later that night, trying, but not managing to fall asleep, Myine thought of Arun, the Mera boy who would have his feet crushed. She knew, she knew that he could have fled, that he could have outrun the Mera helpers, she was certain of that. But instead he chose to help her flee. Who would have even suspected that a Mera would be capable of such, such, she could not find the right word. Kindness, perhaps. Or bravery. For, yes, he was very brave in her eyes. A kind and brave Mera boy whose feet would soon be crushed for helping her.
Perhaps she slept a little toward dawn, but recurring images of a little bundle being tossed over the lip of the mountain roused her again with the sun, which now rose, hot and bright on a new day filled by crushed feet.
She helped Hia prepare breakfast, not talking, only thinking. Thinking impossible thoughts of helping the boy escape certain confinement. Making unachievable plans to enter the Mera village and finding out where they held him. Saying nothing to her mother, who, she now realized was asking her something.
“What?” she said.
“Where are you?” said Hia. “Many paths away.”
“Frogs,” said Myine.
“You are not going back to the lake,” her mother almost screamed.
“No, not today.”
“Not ever,” said Hia.
Although that was plain dumb and untrue, Myine did not have the strength to argue. So instead she returned to her impractical thoughts of saving the Mera boy.
Her mother, believing that she for once had had the last word, also finished her meal in silence.
On the dawn of the third day after Arun’s capture, Myo, the Lasi Yaj-Hate, along with two of his helpers, made it into Htin’s compound unseen. The secret way between the two Yaj-Hate compounds had been both well-guarded and well-concealed for many generations. It was the crucial line between the two tribal Yaj-Hates for purposes of communication and coordination. For Yaj-Hates, and their helpers, constituted a third tribe more ancient and more enduring than either the Mera or the Lasi, both of which, in the eyes of the Yaj-Hates, were blind children to be led by the seeing and knowing.
And so, the seeing and knowing entered Htin’s hut and then sat down to cups of strong tea and sweet fruit.
“I am here,” said Myo. “What is the urgency?”
“Myo,” said Htin. “You have a young woman among the Lasi who knows of your path,” said Htin.
“Impossible,” said Myo. Then, offended, “You have called me here to jest. I rushed.”
Htin held up a hand, but Myo did not heed the gesture. “As you know, our secret way is serpentine and long, I do not walk it gladly, and not with such urgency.”
“I do not jest,” said Htin. “I promise you. Two of my helpers, both trusted beyond any doubt, caught a Lasi girl and a Mera boy at the convergence of our paths atop Myiammo Taung. By the cliff, Myo. Talking to each other. We have the boy in custody now, awaiting his sentence.”
“By the cliff?” It was almost a shout.
Htin nodded. “Yes, my friend. And you can see what this means. It means the Mera boy must have walked our path, and it means that the Lasi girl must have walked yours. And it means that they must have shared what they knew. That we each have a path. This is grave.”
Myo said nothing, did not move, but blinked many times. He tried to digest this terrible intelligence. Then he started to shake his head. Slowly. “How could they?” he said.
“I don’t know about your Lasi girl,” said Htin. “As for the Mera boy, considering his behavior ever since childhood, perhaps I am not so surprised. He has always been a restless spirit. Bright but restless. I seriously considered him for helper at one point, but in the end I deemed him too independent, too curious, too unable to sit still. Always out in the jungle rummaging around, turning stones over. We asked him several times what he was doing. He would always give us the same reply: ‘Answering questions,’ he would say.”
“I know of no such Lasi girl,” said Myo. “No one strays from our village.” Then he fell silent. Then said, “I cannot imagine.” After another short while he asked, “Could they describe her, your helpers?”
Htin asked one of the helpers to fetch Arun and Ohnmar. Now.
The soon arrived.
“About this tall,” said Arun the helper, indicating his left shoulder. “Long dark hair.”
“They all have long dark hair,” said Myo.
“As did she,” said Arun.
“What else?” said Myo. “Anything else?”
“She wore a yellow and green sari,” said Ohnmar.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Arun. “With a green belt. A wide green belt.”
Myo made a careful mental note of that. “What else? Ugly, beautiful, plain?”
“Oh, beautiful,” said Ohnmar. “Yes, beautiful.”
“Yes,” agreed Arun.
“How old would you say?” said Myo.
Ohnmar and Arun looked at each other. “A year, two at the most, short of marriage,” said Arun. Ohnmar nodded his head in agreement.
“Feet?” said Myo.
“Feet?” from the two of them.
“Bare or shoed?”
“Ah,” said Arun. “Sandaled.”
“What kind? Peasant, trader? Expensive?”
Again, Ohnmar and Arun looked to each other in consultation. “I’d say not inexpensive,” said Ohnmar. “Fine sandals.”
As he listened many fragments of young Lasi women swam around in his mind, here and there colliding, here and there adhering, and slowly the one image emerged, it could only be: Myine.
“A green belt, you said?”
“Yes, a wide green belt.”
“Thank you,” he said to Htin, and then to the two helpers, “Thank you. You’ve been helpful.”
Then the Lasi Yaj-Hate asked one last question, “How come she got away, a woman in sandals? Did you not see fit to chase her?”
“We saw fit to chase her,” said Arun the helper, “but Arun put up a fight.”
“He fought you to prevent her capture?” said Htin, suddenly very interested.
“Yes,” said Arun the helper. “I mentioned this.”
“Not loudly enough,” said Htin.
“I’m sorry, Lord.”
“Too bad we can’t kill him twice,” said Ohnmar, though mainly under his breath.
“What did you say?” said Htin.
“Sorry, nothing,” said Ohnmar.
“Please keep your opinions to yourself.”
“Yes, Lord,” said Ohnmar.
“You can go now,” said Htin with a wave of his hand.
“Yes, Lord,” they said in unison, bowed, and left.
Htin looked at his Lasi counterpart. “You know who the girl is.” It was not a question.
“I do,” said Myo.
“She has walked your path, and she has divulged tribal secrets,” said Htin.
“I am aware of that.”
“How would you sentence?”
“How did you sentence?”
“Crushed feet and abandonment.”
“A fitting death,” said Myo.
“I will sentence the same.”
Htin nodded in agreement. “Wise.”
Myo then rose. “I thank you Htin. You were right to call me.”
“I thought so.”
Myo then offered Htin his hand. Htin took and shook it. “Till next time, my friend,” he said.
“Till next time,” said Myo.
On their long walk back to Lasi territory, Myo gave his two helpers detailed instructions on how to apprehend Myine.
Myine could not sleep. While still dark, the night was now old and the dawn was not far off. The forest surrounding the village was at its quietest: deep in its long inhale before bursting out in foresty song with the arrival of the new sun.
In the other cot, her mother was snoring softly. Myine envied her the ability to sleep so well. She rose, donned her sari and left the hut. For where she was not sure, only that she had to move, take in fresh air, stretch legs, think some more about feet, crushed feet. The poor boy.
The moon was low and still sinking. Full in a few days. The air was cool and moist. It would be a fine day, not too hot.
She walked the length of the village, then back. Then thought briefly about making her way to the lake, the moon on the water. Yes, the moon on the water would perhaps still her now-here now-there mind. She decided, yes. She would need her sandals, though. It was a long walk, rocky at times. Not for bare feet if she could help it. And so she turned for her own hut.
Still, the forest had not exhaled, which was why the sound caught her ear. It was a whisper. An urgent whisper. She could not make out what was said, but she could make out direction. From her hut. Someone was whispering to someone else from very near to it.
Curiosity more than fear stilled her in her tracks. Then she moved to her left and circled many other huts, and even crossed the edge of the village into jungle to approach her hut from the lake side. Then she might hear what was said.
As she approached she heard nothing. And then nothing, and then, quite loudly, her mother, angry, worried: “She is not here,” is what her mother said.
“Where is she then?” She recognized Thant’s, the Yaj-Hate helper’s, voice.
“I don’t know,” said her mother, close now to tears, she could tell.
“Are you hiding her?” said Thant.
“Why would I hide her?” said her mother. “And what do you want with her.”
“None of your business,” said another male voice. Another helper then.
“She’s my daughter, it is my business.”
Neither helper answered that.
“We wait here,” said Thant, presumably to the second helper.
“You can’t stay here,” said her mother.
“We can stay wherever we want,” said Thant.
“You can stay outside,” said her mother.
“We will stay right here, inside,” said Thant. Myine could hear him sitting down on a cot. Hers, she supposed.
And now, what should have been plain many moments ago, finally dawned on her, beating the sun to it, but not by much.
She knew: They know.
Something cold and very strong seized her heart and squeezed: They know. They knew that she had walked their path, and now they meant to crush her feet.
The very feet that now, by some volition of their own, edged her back into the bordering trees, into the undergrowth, then deeper still; and then she turned and walked as fast and silently as she could away from the village. Toward the lake, toward somewhere to hide, toward—she realized—a life as she had never known it, for there was no returning to the village or her mother now, this she also knew.
On the fifth day after his capture, five days before the full moon, Arun developed a high fever. Htin was furious with the helpers. The boy must not die; he must live to suffer his punishment. This was crucial.
He thought briefly about carrying out the sentence right now, but that would break tradition, and, also, he had openly stated the day: that of the full moon. The boy had to be kept alive until then.
The helpers had already cleaned all of Arun’s wounds, but now cleaned them again and ministered herbal remedies to reduce the swelling, both on the back of his head and from the leeches all over his body.
On the sixth day after his capture, four days before the full moon, Arun’s fever was higher still. He might die, said the helpers. Htin would not hear of it. He must be kept alive, whatever they had to do, they must keep him alive.
On that sixth day Arun’s parents tried to see their son, but they were turned away. He is not to be seen by anyone.
Can we not say goodbye? they asked.
On the morning of the crushing you can say your goodbyes, they were told. Not until then.
The helpers brought cool water from the lake in large pails, and washed Arun down many times a day. Still, the fever would not subside. The dawn of the seventh day came with Arun’s fate still in the balance.
Myine had them approach from many directions. As if they knew precisely where she was hiding and were now cornering her against the lake. The helpers must have pressed the tribe’s best trackers into service.
She weighed her two options: to, as silently as possible, move from the lake shore back into the jungle, or to move into the lake and try to make her way farther south through the water.
The problem was, she could not swim. Had she been able to, there would be no question. Trackers could not track her progress through water, and she would have swum as far as she could under water and by cover of the overhanging vegetation. She could have escaped her pursuers that way. But she could not swim, and she knew that the bottom of the lake, even close to shore, was slippery, treacherous, and often very deep. Walking the shore-water might be a good way to drown. Many had.
They drew closer. She could hear a word, a call, another sign of her progress discovered, perhaps, by the trackers. If she were to head back into the jungle it would have to be soon, it would have to be now. Still she hesitated. The chances of slipping through their approaching net did not strike her as good. Neither did wading the water.
Then her feet made up her mind for her, and they took one, then two, then three steps into the water. On the fourth step she vanished below the surface, so suddenly did the lake bottom dive. She flailed briefly to make it back to shallower water, but seemed to slip out even farther. Before going under again she saw a vine drifting slowly toward her, not unlike a snake, perhaps it was a snake, no it was not. She seized it with both hands and pulled herself upward. First the vine gave way and she remained fully submerged. Then as she pulled further, the full length of the vine grew taught and she breached the surface to, finally, breathe again.
Had she made too much noise? She had no way of knowing. All she could do was to stay as still as possible, clinging to the vine, which, she saw, had many brothers and sisters along the shore, offering her a way to move down the lake, away from the trackers and helpers.
Again, she listened for them. They were louder now.
“Here,” someone yelled. “Fresh.”
Others clambered in his direction. Excitement. Closing in.
Myine pulled herself a little closer to the shore and found the bottom again. The slippery bottom, but firm enough to take a step, and then two, and then within the reach of another vine, which she grasped and which allowed her another step and then yet another. As quietly as she could, and with only the top of her face now breaking the lake’s surface she glided through the cold water south, south, step by slippery, watery step.
The excitement now farther behind her had turned to frustration it seemed. The helpers perhaps blaming the trackers for losing her spoor. Maybe she had succeeded. She reached for another vine and pulled herself farther south. Stopped again to listen. No, they had not given up. She could hear feet coming toward her along the shore.
“Fresh,” she could hear the tracker say. “That spoor was fresh. It was her. She has entered the water. And recently. She cannot have gone far.”
Then someone else asked, quite clearly and not far from where she was now hiding by—while never letting go of the vine—slipping beneath the surface as often and for as long as she could: “Can she swim?”
No one seemed to know. She let herself sink below the surface again, clinging to the vine to prevent her sliding out and into the deep.
A clump of reeds to her left gave her the idea. The reeds, especially the older more brittle ones, were hollow inside. Perhaps hollow enough to breathe through.
Never for a moment letting go of the vine, she broke of one of the reeds, no, too young. The inside was filled with white spongy fiber. Another reed, the same. But the third, definitely older, was hollow. She bit off the far end, and it was hollow too. Then she sank beneath the surface and stuck the far end out of the water and tried breathing. Slowly, but definitely, air was passing through the reed and into her mouth, into her lungs. She could remain underwater.
And that she did. For many, many long, slow breaths. For long enough, she hoped, for her pursuers to have given up. Finally, she surfaced again, and listened. There were no sounds from her pursuers. Had they given up then? Oh, she prayed so.
Not letting go of the reed, she made her way for another vine, and then another, and then another, and so farther and farther down along the lake shore, until she felt certain that it was safe to return to land.
Easier said than done, her wet sari clinging to her arms and legs. But by pulling herself up by low-hanging branches, she made it back on land, where she lay down to catch her breath. Again she listened. She tried with her entire being to ascertain whether she was alone now.
She was not.
Voices. Still within earshot. She heard a branch break under some foot. Another question asked, or accusation flung. She could not make out which. But they had not given up. However, she was no longer surrounded, the way down the lake shore was no longer blocked to her, not as far as she could tell.
She removed her sari and wrung as much water out of it as she could before she donned it again. Then, thanking the reed and the vines for their help, she began, as silently as she could, to move farther south along the lake.
Many urgent steps later, she could still hear the voices, though they grew fainter. A very good sign. Then she heard nothing, and then nothing for so long that she began to hope she was now safe. Still she moved farther south.
Then a cry that froze her heart: “Fresh.” A jubilant tracker. “Here. Fresh.”
Many feet. Many words. Jumbled. Excited.
She considered easing back into the lake, but her feet had other ideas. They began to run. As fast as they could. And here: a path. Not well-walked or maintained but not abandoned either. She could run, and she was a fast runner.
She gathered her sari up around her waists and then she ran.
So did her pursuers. She could make out fresh excitement behind her, many feet. Perhaps they had heard her or even seen her.
And they ran.
She thought she could hear the landing of many feet on the packed dirt of the path, but then again, that might also be her heart pounding.
At places the path was less even than in others: roots, branches fallen and broken; she could not take her mind off where her feet landed. Briefly, she considered striking off the path and in among the trees for concealment, but when she remembered the skill of the Lasi trackers she abandoned that notion. But, could she outrun them? One voice held out hope while another pointed out that her sari was slowing her down and that the men behind her were indeed faster runners, and most likely had more stamina as well. They would, this logical voice pointed out, eventually catch up with, and capture her. And then they would crush her feet.
Still she ran.
Then she knew: the thump-thump of her heart was no longer the thump-thump of her heart. It was the landing of many feet behind her on the path’s dirt. Her own feet flew. Her lungs, now pressed to their limit, screamed for her to stop, if only for a few breaths, just a few breaths. Still she ran.
Then the impossible occurred. Impossible, for she had not noticed how it could have happened. They had caught up with her. In fact, they had not only caught up with her, they had overtaken her and now they stood up ahead, just by the long bend up ahead—looking a little surprised, though, she noted—now pointing in her direction. Still she flew. Toward them.
Now she could make out shouting. It came from those up ahead. Shouting and there a spear, and there a bow and arrow. They prepared to stop her.
Still she flew.
And then, those up ahead began shouting louder and also pointing now, though not at her but behind her, at her pursuers.
Myine tried to understand, could not. Now she was almost upon them, but to her surprise, no one moved onto the path to stop her, they were too busy shouting—in that strange Mera accent, she realized—and still pointing behind her. Now she was upon them, and still no one stopped her. She flew past, and farther down the path.
Behind her more shouts and screams and then she realized: she had crossed the Mera border. Those were Mera border guards, now engaged with much more serious business than a running Lasi girl. At this she dared stop and turn.
What she saw was seven, perhaps eight Mera guards, spears and other weapons at the ready, blocking the path for her pursuers, who had now arrived at the border. The scene stood out clearly: the Mera guards challenged the Lasi helpers and trackers. They were not to enter Mera lands. They were behaving exactly like Lasi guards would behave faced with a Mera invasion of this kind. She could only ascribe her own crossing to the confusion among the Mera guards when faced with both the strange running girl and a pack of Lasi pursuers. Stopping the many was more important than stopping the one.
She thanked Ea-pe for his wonderful wizardry and set out farther down the path. Not running yet—her lungs would not hear of it—but walking very fast nonetheless. There was no telling how long before pursuit would be taken up again—whether by Lasi helpers and trackers now allowed entry, or by Mera helpers and trackers.
She thought, or hoped, briefly that what she had heard about Mera tracker, that they could not track a fish across a floor, was true. But this was nothing to rely on. She had to move fast, and far. And she had to find shelter, a well-concealed shelter, where she could rest and try to make all the pieces of her now shattered life fit together somehow.
And so, she took a deep breath and started to run again.
When Ea-pe created the world he also created two sibling snakes: Kar, the tempter, the base and vicious, the darkness at the root of men’s minds; and he created Daw to even things up.
On the dawn of the eighth day after Arun’s capture, two days before the day of the full moon when his feet were to be crushed, his fever had begun to subside.
Htin, stopping by to ask about the boy’s condition between every one of the many chores it took to arrange for the public crushing of the traitor boy’s feet, again stuck his head in the door.
“Has he spoken?”
“Not yet, Lord,” said the helper.
“He is cooler.”
“But not conscious yet?”
“Find and let me know the moment he comes to.”
With that Htin dove back out into the bright and humid day, to see to some other aspect of this, what had to be a very effective, public demonstration of the power of the Yaj-Hate.
Arun was dreaming. And in his dream, as in his dream for the last three days, he was trying to hold things still. He was trying to gather and hold things still. The dream trees teetering this way and that but never aligned, toppling and needing him to prop them up, to bring them together, upright and still. But this was impossible for his arms were too short, so instead he tried to still the waters on Ei-vu lake, a thousand, thousand ripples clashing and spraying and none of them aligning, all competing for direction in winds as capricious as the ripples they stirred.
Nothing aligns, nothing makes sense, and nothing stays still. So he tries to cover the lake with his tongue to lick it clear of ripple, but the lake tastes not like water at all but more like cloth, like sand, like a burning sun, and he needs to swallow, but his throat is too dry, and who can swallow the sun, anyway?
Closer to the surface Arun enters a layer, a shell of pain. Of a thousand bites, of blood lost to the black leeches who feasted on him to the delight of the helpers who did nothing to help him so why call them helpers?
And his head aches, and his heals ache and he is as thirsty as he’s ever been in his life.
“Mother,” he cries out, and he wonders who spoke.
A shape by the side of his bed moves fast, up and away.
“Mother,” he says again, certain this time that he said the word.
His lips, his tongue, “Mother.”
By the afternoon of the eighth day after Arun’s capture Myine had neither heard nor seen anyone for the entire day. She had come upon the Mera village but had circled it at safe distance. Although the din of the tribe had reached her she had encountered nobody. She felt safe, or as safe as you could possibly feel in Mera territory with the Lasi Yaj-Hate and his helpers intent on finding you in order to crush your feet.
Searching for a good place to hide all morning she had finally found what must have been an old, now abandoned, lookout: a platform built high in a tree not a stone’s throw from the path leading south from the Mera village. She would never have spotted it had it not been for a mischievous monkey throwing an unripe mango in her direction. It almost hit her. When the monkey noticed he had missed he threw another mango at her, which also missed, but barely. She looked up to see him grinning up there in the mango tree. Grinning and sitting, sitting on what looked like a floor up there in the tree. As high up as ten men on top of each other. She shook her fist at the monkey, don’t try that again. But then, as he shook his fist back at her, she also thanked him for pointing out what might be a perfect place to hide.
She surveyed the bottom of the tree for purchase to climb and found some old grooves, carved many seasons ago and not used since then from what she could tell. She looked up at the monkey, still on the platform, looking down at her, daring her to climb.
She rearranged her sari and began scaling the large tree. Not a skilled tree-climber, but never afraid either (a crucial quality for a good tree-climber), so before long, without once looking down, she had scaled the lower bole, and now had a firm grip on the first large lower branch. From here, just a matter of time and patient effort.
The monkey, a smart monkey apparently, added two and two and arrived at four and beat a retreat to a branch or two higher up the tree.
A few moments later Myine heaved herself onto the bamboo and reed platform, and found it large enough for her to lay down upon. To stretch out upon and catch her breath upon. She caught several of them.
After her fill of breaths, she rolled onto her side and looked over the edge at the precarious drop, the dangerous drop should she fall off. More than ten men standing on top of each other, perhaps fifteen. Then she looked toward the path, and saw why this might have been built here: the platform afforded a clear view of any comings and goings down there.
She rolled back onto her back and looked up to see what happened to the monkey. Still two branches up, looking down at her, offended. After all, she had stolen his platform. “Sorry,” she said. Not that he seemed to accept her apology.
Again, she looked over the edge of her tree-held hideout and imagined falling. It would be fatal, she realized, or at least catastrophic. What if she rolled off in her sleep? No, she wouldn’t roll. She would be aware, she decided, even in her sleep, that rolling off was simply not an option.
Still, could she be certain of that? And she would have to sleep. The monkey, she thought, would he push her off? She shook her head, looking up at him again, not finding him now. In another tree now, probably. Sulking, plotting.
No, she’d never heard of a monkey pushing a human. She would be safe.
She would be safer, though, if should could build some sort of fence around the platform. Maybe a few short posts connected with vines?
She looked around for those ingredients. Saw some fallen branches on the ground, and some vines hanging from a nearby tree. Would it be worth the trouble? All the way down again just for that? She decided: yes, it would be worth it.
She discovered that it was easier to climb up than down. Much. Still, she made it all the way down, collected what she needed, and made her way back up again. Halfway there, she saw the monkey looking down at her from the platform, his platform, not approvingly; but by the time she made it all the way up, the monkey had climbed two branches higher again, now studying her.
She spent a good part of the remaining afternoon building her fence. She needed more posts, and climbed down and up twice more. Finally, she decided that the little barricade she had built, although it would not stop her from rolling off, should she decide to, would certainly wake her up, should she roll in her sleep.
Job well done.
And now she was starving.
Htin hovered over him like a thunder cloud. “Can you hear me, boy?” he asked. And again.
Yes, Arun heard him, but why did he want to know?
“Can you hear me, boy?” Htin said again. Yelled.
“Do you know where you are?”
“You are in the Yaj-Hate compound.”
Arun did not answer.
“Do you know what you have done?”
That question was the key that opened the door to the last many days, and his recent history came flooding back. And now Arun knew. Knew why he was in the Yaj-Hate compound, knew why his heels hurt, knew why his head hurt and why he had bites all over his body.
And he knew that his feet were about to be crushed.
And he knew that if he were to survive, if he were to live at all beyond this moment, he would have to be careful both about what he did and what he said.
So he said, “No.”
“You don’t know or you don’t remember?”
“What is the difference?”
Htin rose and stretched. “Bring me a seat,” he said to someone standing just outside the hut.
Htin grunted what Arun thought might have been a thank you, then sat down. He then leaned over and brought his face very close to Arun’s. “You met a Lasi woman,” he said.
He remembered. At the top of Myiammo Taung. By the precipice. By the forever down cliff. But what he said was, “I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Do you remember walking the path?”
“Are you telling me the truth?”
Arun, along with all other children, had been taught that the Yaj-Hate could tell when you were lying. So, never, never lie to him. Why, then, Arun thought, did he have to ask.
He decided to take that chance. After all, what did he have to lose?
“Yes,” he lied.
Htin drew a deep sigh of exasperation. “What do you remember?”
“I remember the water cage.” Which was true.
“Ah, that you do remember. And do you know why you were in the water cage? Why you were visited by so many leeches?”
“No,” he lied.
Htin sat quiet for quite some time, apparently pondering what to do next. Then he said, “Arun. I don’t know whether you are telling me the truth or not. Perhaps the knocks on your head have knocked your memories asunder, I don’t know. But, Arun, you have walked our path. You have found and walker our path. This is a grave offense, as you know.
“Also, you have met with a Lasi woman, and you have told her about our path. That is an even graver offense. At dawn of the day after tomorrow, you will be punished for these crimes. Your feet will be crushed and you will then be carried into the jungle and abandoned.”
Arun knew about the feet, he knew that was the punishment for walking the path, but the abandonment took him by surprise. He was, then—a plain fact that simply walked in and sat down as certain as anything—facing a death sentence.
As this cold certainty settled with him, the inside of the hut grew very still, and the figure of the Yaj-Hate very precise.
The Yaj-Hate was saying something else, but Arun—wrapped in this frozen silence—did not hear.
“Do you understand?” said the Yaj-Hate, perhaps noticing his distance.
“I,” said Arun. “I did not hear.”
“I must know what you told the Lasi woman,” said Htin.
Arun decided that the only way that he would have even the slightest chance to escape—and escape he must, that was his only option—was to appear as dim-witted and oblivious as possible.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “What Lasi woman?”
Again, Htin drew a sigh of exasperation. “The woman you met at the top of Myiammo Taung.”
“I have not been on top of Myiammo Taung, Lord,” said Arun. “No one has.”
“Ah,” said the Yaj-Hate. “You do remember who I am, I see.”
“I have always known,” said Arun.
“And you remember the water cage?”
“But not why you were in it?”
“Or walking the path?”
“Do you understand that you will be punished?”
“For what, Lord.”
“I just told you.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You are lying.”
“No, Lord.” Then he said, “I am very thirsty, could I have some water?”
Htin rose. He looked down on Arun from his dark height, then turned and left. Outside, he said something to his guards, and a few moments later one of them came in with a scoop of water.
Arun was indeed thirsty, and drank all that he was given.
That night, while Myine slept lightly and carefully on her platform, Arun slept hardly at all.
If he wanted to live, he had to escape. That was very much both the long and the short of it. But with two helpers inside the hut now, and others guarding the outside, what chances did he have? The only option was to rise and dash, but he knew that they would catch him in a breath, and bring him back.
But what other choice did he have?
That is why, toward dawn, he did just that. Judging that the two helpers inside the hut would now be nodding off from staying up all night, and the those outside might be sleepy too, and perhaps fewer, he slowly brought his feet down on the hard ground and rose up sitting. His heels screamed as he put weight on them, and he almost cried out. He bit down. He would have to live with that. He stood up.
If the helpers inside noticed, they made no sign. No orders to lie back down. Perhaps they were asleep.
Or not, “Lie down,” came the voice.
“I need to urinate,” he said.
“Urinate in this,” the other helper said, bending down for a pail.
Arun held out his hand, and the helper handed the pail to him. Then, with as much speed and force as he could, he swung the pail, first at the one helper now standing, then at the one sitting, then he darted for the door and took off as fast as he had ever run in his life.
Then, much sooner than he had thought, or hoped: the alarm. The shriek of a horn blown hard and long. So loudly he wasn’t quite sure from what direction the sound came. So loudly it came from everywhere. Disorienting. He stumbled. He didn’t fall. Then he stumbled again, and fell.
And then he was surrounded.
No one struck him. But they did tie his hands and feet and carried him back to the Yaj-Hate compound, past a growing flock of drowsy, curious villagers. Children asking questions, pointing.
During the ninth day after Arun’s capture, the day before the full moon, his hands and feet remained tied. Htin was taking no chances.
The helpers took good care of him. He was fed twice and given plenty of water. His hands and feet were not tied too hard; the leather strips did not constrict circulation. But they effectively prevented any further attempts to escape.
The sores on his body from the leeches had begun to heal, and now not so much hurt as itched. His head hurt less and less. His heels were moaning but not too loudly.
But none of that mattered. For he knew, he had been told, that tomorrow comes the full moon, and with the dawn of this full-moon day, they will crush his feet. Then they will carry him far into the jungle and abandon him. Without food. Without water. Easy prey to any hungry cat. He would rather jump off the Myiammo Taung cliff, ending it quickly in one final collapse. He even suggested this to one of the helpers, but this received no reaction. Only a dark, superior face silently enjoying the situation.
Through most of the day Arun listened. He listened like he had never listened before. To the roosters, to the squabbling hens, to the bark of a dog, first to his left, then to his right, louder, the same dog chasing something getting away.
To the soft rain that began falling around midday, brushing over and over the roof of the hut. To the rustle in the trees as a wind entered the village and rummaged around for a while.
To the soft words whispered back and forth between the helpers. He could make out some of them, but not all. Most of those he understood were about him, about the morning, about feet.
To the screaming of angry birds, and the screaming back of angry monkeys, some sort of fight up in the trees. To the silence on the roof when the rain stopped for a while, and to the renewed stroking when it resumed. Then it came down harder, the brushing turning to pelting as if by a thousand pebbles. Perhaps it had started to hail. He turned his head and looked out the door, but no, no hail, only very large drops, rushing for the earth.
Then the rain ceased again, only the occasional drop now, more from dripping branches than from cloud.
Toward evening his parents arrived. This time they were let in and allowed to talk to him.
Thuya was crying. Lwin seemed embarrassed that she was. Thuya made an effort to stop, wiping her nose on her forearm, but then started out again.
“Son,” said Lwin. But nothing followed. It was appropriate for his father to say something to him, Arun knew that. But his father had either nothing to say or did not know how to say it.
“Son,” said Thuya. “Why did you do this to us? We are shamed now. We are a shamed family.”
Her tears then, he thought, were for her and Thuya, not for him. He was not surprised by this. “I am sorry, Mother,” he said.
“Son,” said Lwin again. “You know that there is nothing we can do.”
“I know that,” Arun said. “I know that.”
After this a long silence, thick with blame.
Then they left. Thuya turned at the door, “Goodbye,” she said.
His father said nothing.
A ripe mango is a good thing, it serves two purposes: it quenches thirst and it stills hunger. Myine was discovering this good thing, over and over. Then she discovered that there can be too much of a good thing when her stomach began to ache from too many mangos, not all of them entirely ripe.
The monkey from the day before was back and had once again settled two branches up, sulking.
Myine had to lie down to try to ease the gathering storm in her stomach. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, came the rain. Soft at first, pleasant, cooling the sultry afternoon, then the sky opened up and emptied itself upon the forest. The monkey moved closed to the trunk for better cover, while Myine—much to her delight—discovered that her platform was well sheltered by the many thick and densely leafed branches above. Watching and listening to the rain took her mind off of her stomach, which seemed to settle down. No more mangoes for a while, though, she decided.
Once the rain stopped, the monkey moved away from the trunk the better to see her, the better to sulk. “I am sorry,” she told him. “I really needed it.”
The monkey did not reply.
“Let’s be friends,” suggested Myine.
Seems the monkey did not speak Lasi.
Myine’s fence had done the trick. Twice, in her sleep, she had rolled up against it, and twice it had woken her up. It had kept her safe. She now inspected it for any damage but found none.
Once, mid-morning, and once in the afternoon she thought she heard people, but looking down over the edge of her tree-shelf, she could see nothing out of the ordinary down by the path. Perhaps some cat or deer. Some wild pig. Though these don’t talk, and it was words she thought she’d heard.
Toward evening she climbed down to attend to hygiene business. She was gaining skill in scaling the tree in both directions. Soon she was back up, looking for the monkey, but he had vanished. Perhaps tired of sulking.
Before she fell asleep she noticed the rising moon. It was full.
Arun did not sleep that night. The morrow was the day of the full moon. He could already hear the crushing of bones in his feet, he could feel the pain, and he could see the helpers with their long, thick poles, hammering down, again and again.
He had only seen it done once. The poor woman was tied to the ground by pegs, her hands and feet thoroughly secured, especially her feet, with many layers of leather circling her ankles.
Two strong helpers had brought the poles, each as high as a man and as thick as a fat woman’s thigh. A heavy weapon, whose smaller cousins were used to crush rise and plants to make meal. Grips had been made on these poles to allow the men to bear down with full force.
And then the first helper stepped up, raised the pole vertically above her left foot and then bore down. He could still hear her scream, drowning out the crunching as the pole sunk deep into her foot. Then once again, into her right foot.
Then the second helper. Left foot, right foot.
The woman ceased to scream, for she had fainted. And so, back and forth, the first helper, the second helper, until each foot had been crushed eleven times.
Then they stopped. At first, Arun could not look. But some morbid curiosity made him, made him discover what eleven blows from a heavy pole does to a woman’s foot: he could not discern a foot. There was just the pulp of red and white and brown at the end of her leg: blood, bone, and skin.
The woman remained unconscious.
Then Arun realized that that very same woman—who has now lived to see the stumps at the end of her legs take some sort of lumpy form, and in some fashion heal—he realized that this very same woman would now see the same thing done to him.
Outside the hut, the world had gone quiet. Not long till dawn now.
Htin and his helpers were already up, preparing the site. Htin making sure, and doubly sure, and trebly sure that the pegs could not be worked loose, that Arun would be held fast. Satisfied that he would be, he signaled to one helper to follow him.
They went to retrieve the two poles.
Although he had been expecting it for many a breath, the rooster’s crow came as an utter surprise, ripping the silence—and with it his life—asunder.
The dawn seemed tentative, barely a blush outside the opening to the hut. Then that awful signaling of the end of his life and world, again and again. As if the rooster enjoyed this.
A helper entered with a bowl of steaming rice porridge. That, and some tea. Was he hungry?
Seriously? Arun could hardly believe this. “No,” he said. “No, I am not.”
Oh, well, seemed the helper to think, and began to help himself to Arun’s breakfast.
“When?” said Arun.
“Not long now,” came one reply. “The tribe is gathering,” came another.
Once, as a child, Arun had been convinced that if you wished something strongly enough, with your entire being, it would come true. Later, however, he had put the event down to coincident.
But at the time he had wished, with his entire being, for his own bow and arrow. His father had told him, over and over, that he was too young for such things, perhaps next year. His mother, who would never contradict his father, did not come to his aid, and so he remained bow-and-arrow-less. But he never stopped wishing.
And this one day, seeing other boys head into the jungle, each with his own small bow and quiver of short arrows, he wished for his own so hard, so hard that he almost lifted himself off the ground. He felt like he exploded into wish. And at that very moment, at that very, very moment, another boy, also name Arun—and who grew up to become the helper who captured him—came up to him and handed him a small bow and a quiver of five short arrows. “Here,” said the older boy. “My father just gave me my large bow and quiver. I’ve seen you long for your own. Here, take mine.”
Arun, stunned almost beyond words, stood up, held out his hands, and received this unbelievable treasure. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.” As much to the boy as to Ea-pe who had granted his wish.
The boy Arun, happy to have made someone else happy, ran off.
Arun looked at the beautiful little bow. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life. And the arrows, each expertly made. Each, as he pulled them out of the quiver and looked down the length of them, true.
Yes, he had had to do a lot of pleading with his parents to keep them, but in the end his father relented, and with him, of course, so did his mother.
The Yaj-Hate’s rooster crowed again, just as if to make sure everyone knew that Arun’s feet would soon be crushed.
That the same Arun would be the one to capture him, Arun thought. The irony.
But he remembered the wish, and the brilliant certainty—at least for a year or two—that wishes, if you really wish them right, strongly, and with your entire being, come true. And how he wished, right now, still tied to the low bed in the Yaj-Hate’s hut, that wishes did come true, if wished right.
And maybe, maybe, he told himself, it had not been a coincidence. Maybe Ea-pe did listen, would listen, to him, now.
And so he wished, so hard that he fisted his hands and curled his feet. So hard he felt like his bed was lifting, so pleadingly to Ea-pe that he was sure that he must hear him. Please, please, please, save me.
If Ea-pe had heard—and Arun knew he must have, he had wished that hard—he seemed to have other plans for him, or he was far too busy elsewhere to come to Arun’s aid, for now Htin arrived, dark in the doorway against the brighter and brighter dawn outside.
“Prepare him,” said Htin.
And with that four helpers untied him and carried him out of the hut. Arun thought of putting up a fight, but then simply accepted what was to happen, and it might as well happen with him retaining a few shreds of dignity.
The entire village had gathered. The entire dead silent village.
Then another rooster, or the same one, Arun wasn’t sure.
The helpers now secured Arun the same way Arun had seen them secure that poor woman long ago. This time there was no concern for his hands and feet, no loose thongs to let flow his blood. He could feel his circulation cease almost immediately, as both hands and feet turned cold in those leathery iron grips.
He looked for the woman with lumps for feet, but could not see her. Perhaps she had not come. Perhaps she could not face this. She had a choice.
He had not.
He looked for his parents but was not surprised he could not see them. Who would want to see their child mutilated? He did see Khin, though. Khin who should have been walking the path today and who must have been given a reprieve, at least for the day, or the morning. Their eyes met but Arun could not read them. They seemed bruised from crying, though, he could see that.
His hands and feet were turning from cold to numb to he could hardly feel them at all. And here came Htin.
Myine had only spoken to the boy once, atop Myiammo Taung, by that sheer drop, still, she was sure that the far, far away scream that woke her up on this the day of the full moon, belonged to this very boy.
Even across this distance—and it sounded as if the scream came not from this world, but from another, one with pains more profound than those we find here—the anguish in that scream chilled her to her marrow.
For he screamed in her stead. He could have run, could have saved himself, but he had chosen to save her.
He screamed again: her scream.
Then silence. She listened as if listening for Death’s footsteps along the path, but nothing. No more screams. Perhaps they had killed him. Or he had fled into unconsciousness. No more screams.
She sat up, saw the monkey up there, glowering again—early riser. She looked at the little mountain of mangos she had gathered, not sure whether she could stomach another one just yet. Still, she was hungry, and thirsty, and they were the perfect antidote. And so, she had her first mango for the day.
The helpers had carried out their task impressively. What was left of his feet was unrecognizable. And they were bleeding profusely.
“Tie a tourniquet on each ankle,” said Htin. “Stop the bleeding.”
His voice, in the wake of Arun’s screams, was loud and commanding. “Hurry,” he said. “Stop that bleeding. Before he bleeds out.”
Then he surveyed the stunned gathering. Good and stunned. Shocked. And so they should be. The lesson well taught.
“Arun the traitor violated not only the holiest of the holy precepts, he also shared the most secret of our secrets with the enemy.” A pause for effect.
“This is his punishment for violating the precept of never walking the path until it is your time.”
No one said a word. Htin let his words sink in. Then said:
“He will now be taken to the jungle and abandoned.” Another pause.
“That is the punishment for divulging tribal secrets to the enemy.”
No one said a word.
“Take his lesson to heart,” said Htin, and then, as if bored with his people, he turned and brusquely stalked away.
Ten paces out he turned to his helpers, “A day and a night’s walk south. Abandon him there.”
Later that morning Myine sat up again, another noise. She listened harder, and harder still. And this time there was no doubt: Humans. These were human feet. So, they had come for her. The helpers and their trackers had taken up the chase again.
She pressed herself against the platform and peeked over the edge down at the path. Nothing yet, but she could now clearly hear feet, many feet, not even pretending to walk quietly. Unlike trackers. Perhaps these were Mera trackers. Mera helpers sent to find her. The Mera would not let the Lasi enter their lands, then, but would do the job for them.
The feet grew louder, though still no sign of life on the path.
And still no sign.
And then a sign. A Mera helper, surely—she did not recognize him as Lasi—led the small procession. Then another Mera helper, then two strong Mera men, probably helpers too, carrying a sick man on a stretcher, followed by two more Mera helpers. In a hurry, it seemed.
They came closer, not looking about them. And not in her direction at all. Intent on the path, all of them, except the sick man. Or perhaps he was dead?
No, the man on the stretcher was not dead. Had he been he would have been covered by a sheet. He was quite naked but for his loin cloth.
But something was not right. He seemed dead to the world, still he was not covered.
Then they came close enough for her to see what once had been the sick man’s feet, and then she vomited. Fortunately, she made little or no noise heaving, for no one caught the sound or looked in her direction.
It was the Mera boy. Who had screamed that scream. Whose feet had been crushed. They were bringing him up their path. Up Myiammo Taung to cast him down the precipice. Though, she thought, they were not heading in Myiammo Taung’s direction.
They passed directly below her now, all urgency, all intent on destination. Soon they would be out of sight.
She had no choice, she had to follow. She had to see where they were taking him, whether up Myiammo Taung or elsewhere. She had to know what other harm they would do to him. To him, in her stead.
She almost slid down the big tree. Looking back up at her temporary shelter one last time she saw the monkey, as if he knew she would not return, looking down at her from the platform, now reclaimed. She half expected him to wave, which—she could not quite believe her eyes—which he did.
By reflex she waved back.
She must have imagined that.
She gathered her sari about her, moved onto the path, and set out after the six helpers and the Mera boy.
The surface of the pool hung suspended far above him, as if it were a distant sky shone upon by a feeble sun. The water was tepid, murky. The bottom of the pool was firm, but it was moving, swaying side to side, rhythmically.
Arun had no idea where he was or how or why. Shifting, everything was shifting. And then, as if suddenly resurrected, the until-now unfelt pain in what used to be his feet stood up and roared their agony.
Screamed their agony up his legs and into both heart and lungs, into arms, fingers, ears, eyes, into air surrounding, filling, filling what was his universe, filling it so full that once again he could not bear it and passed out.
Moving silently but at a good pace, Myine soon caught up with the procession. Apparently, the last thing they expected was to be followed, for not at any time that she could see, did the rear helpers look behind them.
Now and then they stopped, and a new pair of helpers took on the task of carrying the Mera boy. Sometimes they stopped for water, and once for a small meal—which reminded her of hunger, or, rather, which made her hunger remind her of itself.
Still, that was the least of her concerns right now. Hunger was a wind she could cup and quell with a single hand.
The day, though overcast, grew warm, then hot. The procession stopped more often for water. She had none, and the wind of thirst was harder to still.
Mid-afternoon saw a squall of rain, some of which she gathered in a cupped leaf, enough for a single swallow and to wet her lips and tongue. The rain felt cool on her body as well.
Evening turned night and the procession was still moving, though more slowly now, the helpers tiring. Night turned midnight, the full moon filtering through the trees and dressing everything in silver. Still the procession moved along the path, though even slower now and with frequent stops for rest.
The moon was sinking and the eastern sky breathed a blush with the new dawn, when she, surprisingly, could see Ei-vu Lake close on her right. Then, as the path veered toward it, and toward it again, she could see it bending, the lake, even more surprisingly remained to her right. She would have expected the path to reach the lake. It took some time before she realized that they had reached the lake’s southern edge. She had no idea it had a southern edge. To her mind it had always stretched infinitely in that direction.
She briefly considered leaving the path for the lake shore to drink her fill, but she feared to lose them. What if they left the path? She was no tracker. Not that they should be too hard to follow, but why risk it?
The sun hid risen when the helpers indeed did leave the trail. But not for too far. After making it through the undergrowth just far enough to not be seen from the path, and then as far again, they finally stopped. Here they shared some more food, and some more water, and then they lifted the Mera boy off the stretcher and pulled him, now sitting, up to a tree. There they leaned his back against it. One helper rolled up the stretcher, and shouldered it.
They said something to the Mera boy, but Myine could not catch what. The Mera boy made no reply. The helpers now came in her direction. She slipped behind two ancient trees, saw through the sliver between them the six helpers head back to the path, and then heard them arrive and turn right onto it for their return back to their village. She listened to faint—relieved, she thought—voices and feet fading until the jungle was once again free of human noise.
Of all human noise except one: from the small clearing where they had left him: the soft moans of the unconscious Mera boy.
His feet were on fire.
And he remembered.
Though he had no idea where he was, he realized his situation: he had been carried far, and he had now been abandoned. With what used to be his feet burning red and yellow and white and so loudly that he had to wall off the wave after wave as best he could to think even a single thought, he did manage, first one thought, then another.
A tree. His back was against a tree.
Sitting, he was sitting.
And then, surprisingly: Thirsty, he was thirsty. He was surprised that any need aside from quelling this roar of pain could make itself heard. But there it was again, he was thirsty.
And, surprisingly as well, a little hungry.
Then the pain charged again and blackness rose to smother him. He almost screamed, but could not find the strength to. Instead he moaned, and moaned, as if catching the hurt with sound and letting it out into the air surrounding.
Once Myine was perfectly sure that the helpers would not return, she made it down to the lake shore, and kneeling in the shallow water—which here was sandy, and not deep at all—she cupped her hands together and drank cupful after cupful of the wonderful water.
Back on the shore she looked around for a mango tree, and found one. And searching she found several ripe fruits on the ground, which she gathered, one after the other, in her sari.
Then she made for the Mera boy.
He was happy to hear the large animal approach. Leopard perhaps. Wolves? Maybe even tiger. He prayed that whatever it was it, or they, would kill him quickly. End this. Closer now, a branch snapped under a heavy foot. A clumsy animal then. Not a tiger, nor a leopard. Nor wolf. A wild boar probably. No matter. It could kill him, too. Make a meal of him. Would not even leave any scraps.
He looked around him but still could not see it. He closed his eyes, heard it come closer.
And then the animal was upon him. Or close enough to pounce next.
But it didn’t pounce and didn’t pounce and Arun, having steeled himself for the attack now opened his eyes to face his death.
She made absolutely no sense.
At first she was the strangest animal he had ever seen. Then he knew he was imagining this. Hallucinating. Then he recognized her: The Lasi girl from Myiammo Taung.
But that made absolutely no sense.
Then she spoke.
“Are you thirsty?” she said.
He looked up at her, as if facing an apparition, which, perhaps, she was to him. “Are you thirsty?” she said.
He still looked at hear, not comprehending. So she said it again, “Are you thirsty?”
Then, as if finally admitting that she was there and had spoken, he said, “Yes.”
“Here,” she gave him a ripe mango. “This will help.”
He took it and as meticulously as she’d ever seen anyone eat a mango, he slowly consumed it.
“Do you want another?” she asked.
She handed it to him, and he ate that as well. Slowly, carefully. Then he said, “What are you doing here?”
“I followed,” she said.
“How?” he said, but if he had meant to say more, this was drowned in a quick intake of breath and a yelp—like those puppies sometimes make, then by moaning. He closed his eyes and continued this primitive prayer for relief. She had stopped existing for him. For him, again, there was only pain.
Not knowing what to do, she sat down beside him and cradled his head against her shoulder, stroking it. He was very hot.
And so she held him, moaning, moaning, fading, she feared, perhaps toward death, faded now, at least, into temporary relief as his moaning grew more and more faint and then ceased. Lost to the world.
His breath remained short and quick however.
Would he die here? She had no idea, no way of knowing.
Then she noticed the tight strips around his ankles, making what parts of his feet that were not crushed swell into dark, ugly bubbles. She realized that the thongs might have served as a tourniquet, but they had filled that function, probably long ago. Now they simply went on killing what was left of his feet.
They were not easy to untie. Still, she managed. And while some blood trickled through once she removed them, the deepest wounds had clotted and soon even the trickle stopped. His ankles seemed relieved at losing their constriction.
Still he remained unconscious.
Again, she leaned back against the bole beside him. What was she to do? What could she do? What could anyone do?
These questions whirled slowly in a wind more and more tired, and there, beside the hurting Mera boy she fell asleep.
When Ea-pe created the world he also created two sibling snakes: Kar, the tempter, the base and vicious, the darkness at the root of men’s minds; and he created Daw to even things up.
His sudden scream woke her up.
Then he screamed again. The sun was still climbing into the sky. She had slept perhaps an hour, perhaps two.
“Arun,” she said.
He did not hear. His eyes were open, but they were the crazy, staring eyes of a frantic horse. Seeing nothing before him, seeing all demons and devils within.
“Arun,” she said again, louder.
Again he drew breath to scream, and again he screamed.
She cradled his head again, stroked his hair, tried to fill him with the warmth and unhurting she consisted of.
Again, he screamed, and screamed.
Then his eyes closed and he seemed to fall back and away from his demons and devils into a new blackness.
The remnants of his feet had almost doubled in size since she removed the tourniquet, and they were now puffed and leaking both puss and blood. Looking at them brought her pain, actual, severe pain in her own feet. She could, yes, she could, and did, imagine.
For how long she held him so, she didn’t know. She may have fallen back asleep herself.
When he screamed again the sun had begun to set.
She turned to him to see his wide open eyes fixed on the catastrophe of his feet.
“They hurt,” he said. “They hurt so.”
“I know,” she said, and he seemed to believe her. Then she said, “I will get some water and find some more mangos.”
He didn’t answer, but seemed to understand.
On her way to the lake she folded a large leaf into a small pail. This, after drinking her own fill, she filled with water and brought back to Arun.
In his haste to down the water he spilled most of it on his face and chest. She took the leaf-pail from him and returned to the lake for more. She did this twice again before he had drunk his fill.
Then she collected and shared six mangos. He ate four, she ate two.
Done, he leaned back against the bole of the tree and again closed his eyes. With eyes still closed he said, “I will never walk.”
“I know,” she said.
“I will die here.”
“Not if I can help it,” she said.
That sprung his eyes open again, “What are you doing here?” he said. How come you’re here?”
“I followed your helpers,” she said.
“How?” He didn’t understand.
So, she told him about her own escape from the Lasi Yaj-Hate and helpers. He nodded that he understood. He even said, “I see.”
“We’re both outcasts,” she said. “We’ll survive this together.”
He shook his head. “No. I will not survive this. Look at them. My blood is already poisoned. I can feel the heat and the hurt crawl up the inside of my legs. It will reach my heart, and that will kill me.”
She wanted to say that she would see to it that he didn’t die, but she had no idea how she would go about that, so instead she said, “I will make you more comfortable.”
With that she rose and began to gather leaves and a little later an armful of soft reeds from the lakeside. With this she wove a soft mat and help move Arun onto it. “Better?” she asked.
He nodded. “A little.”
Then she said, “Arun. I don’t know what to do about your feet. I could wash them, but I’m not sure whether that would help or hurt.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It is too late to do anything. I doubt I will last the day. There’s nothing you can do.”
She had no answer to that.
When Ea-pe created the world he also created two sibling snakes: Kar, the tempter, the base and vicious, the darkness at the root of men’s minds; and he created Daw to even things up.
Kar was a black, wetly scaled cobra. He seemed to have always just slithered out of some dark, damp, not very wholesome place.
Daw was cobra, too, but light: golden, her hood a seeming prism of friendly colors, yet fierce with strength.
Once, in a prouder youth, Kar had challenged his sister, which is why he still missed a pink-edged wedge of his hood—an embarrassment that to this day makes him reluctant to spread his hood all the way. This is also why he always heads in another, mostly opposite, direction whenever their paths cross.
Approaching the southern end of Lake Ei-vu from the west, Daw veered a little to her right. She could cover ground like lightning, often waking a soft weather system. Such a weather system now still quivered along the ground from the heart of Tibet, across eastern Nepal and India, into the heart of northern Burma for the southern end of Lake Ei-vu.
By this southern shore she stopped and rose to survey and listen. Locating what she had come for, she then swam the final earth to where Myine was still cradling Arun’s head against her shoulder.
Arun saw her first. To his mind Daw was nothing out of the ordinary, just another of his internal demons who somehow had managed to slip through the leaky shell of Arun and onto the jungle floor.
Daw addressed Arun, who then answered.
This stirred Myine, who asked Arun what it was the he said. Was he thirsty? Hungry?
“No,” said Arun. “I was just greeting that snake.”
Which is when Myine turned toward Daw and saw her, too; risen, with hood spread like a beacon.
“She has come to kill me,” Arun informed her.
“I have never,” said Myine. “Is it real?”
“She has come to kill me,” repeated Arun.
The huge cobra lowered herself, and now, glittering in the grass, slowly made her way toward Arun.
Myine thought of reaching for something, a twig, branch, stone, to defend the boy, but found herself incapable of movement. Seized by a dream, then, she realized. This is a dream.
Daw stopped by Arun’s feet, as if inspecting them. Now from this angle, now from that. Both feet. Then she looked up at Arun and said, or at least that is what Myine thought she heard the snake, impossibly, say:
“This is going hurt.”
Arun nodded, as if he, too, had heard and knew precisely what the snake was talking about.
Opening its fearsome jaws wide, the snake lowered her head to Arun’s left foot, toward a spot it had apparently already chosen, then sunk her venomous teeth into it. Myine could see the venom pulse through the snake’s throat and into the boy.
Arun screamed with an unearthly pain.
Unmoved, and apparently satisfied, the snake let go and now moved to his right foot, found there another spot and sank its jaws deep into the dark swelling. Again, Myine could see the venom leave the snake and enter Arun.
Who screamed again.
“That,” said the snake—or is what Myine thought it said—“should do it.”
Arun, apparently understanding this dream, said, “Thank you.”
Rising, the snake apparition now looked directly down at her. And now, she thought it said, “Take good care of him,” but, of course, that was quite impossible. What Myine wanted more than anything right now was to wake up. But this dream had no handles, nothing to grasp and yank to make cease. As if it was not a dream at all.
The beautiful—yes, it was truly magnificent—snake now lowered itself and in the next moment it was gone, leaving only small winds and some minute lightning along the ground chasing her.
“Did you see that?” she said, turning to Arun.
To her surprise she saw that Arun was smiling. Not at her, no, he was looking at his feet, smiling. So she looked at his feet as well.
The swelling was already subsiding. The black and dark red of the lumps was turning the color of healthy skin, and the feet themselves were stirring as if from a bad dream, suddenly remembering their proper shape and purpose.
Myine did not dare to draw breath, lest she disturbed whatever wonder was taking place in this very hard-to-wake-up-from dream. And there, as if the last many days had all been the same, long dream, Arun’s feet seemed happy to be back, none the worse for the experience.
“Her name is Daw,” said Arun.
“That beautiful cobra.”
“You saw her, too?”
“Of course,” said Arun.
“It was not a dream?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. But whatever happened, these are just fine again,” he said and wriggled his toes to prove the point.
“Her name is Daw?” she said. “The snake?”
“How do you know?”
“She told me.”
“You spoke to her?”
“She spoke to me.”
“If that is what she did, then she spoke to me as well,” realized Myine as she was saying it.
“Have you ever heard of a snake like this?” said Arun. “Almost like there was a good sister to make up for Kar.”
“Never,” admitted Myine. Then, just to make sure, to get her bearings:
“This actually happened?”
“It must have,” said Arun. “Look at my feet. The don’t hurt anymore.”
She looked. Even bent over and touched them. “I don’t believe it.”
“I thought she had come to kill me,” said Arun.
“I did hear you say that.”
“She came to heal me.”
“I wonder why?” said Arun.
And wonder why, he did.
Once they had both managed to accept that what had happened had in fact happened; once they had both risen and together walked down to the lake to quench their thirsts, and once Arun had then even taken a short swim to cool down—Myine remaining in the shallows also cooling; once they had established that the world as they had always known it still seemed intact, but for that one golden rift when Daw bit Arun’s feet; once he felt himself on firm ground again he wondered: why had Daw helped him? What had she told him? And, most importantly, what was he now expected to do in return? For, he must do something in return, this he knew. She had done this for a reason.
That evening they found a better place to settle, closer to the shore. Myine weaved some more reed mats, and Arun built a simple, but effective lean-to shelter. He even made some snares from thin vine and managed to catch a rabbit, which they now roasted over the open fire. No spices to go with it, but hunger more than made up for this.
Licking his fingers after the meal, he said to Myine:
“She wants me to do something.”
“Daw. Yes. Do you know what?”
“I think so.”
She said nothing, waiting for more.
Then he said. “The paths are not right. It is not right what we do to our elders, to those who have spent their lives helping us. It is not right to force them up the path and over that edge. It cannot be right.”
Still she said nothing.
“The Yaj-Hates tell us that Ea-pe created the path for us to use. That Ea-pe showed us how tribes are meant to survive. How we cannot afford to feed and cater to those who no longer are able to contribute. But, I notice—and I have for a long time—that the Yaj-Hate and his helpers are never in want of anything. That they seem to have a surplus of everything, not only food. More of everything than they will ever need.”
Then he added, “More than enough to feed and cater to our old ones.”
Myine had thought, and more than once, along similar lines. “So they do,” she said.
“And,” he said, “I have never seen, or heard of, a Yaj-Hate or his helpers ever walking the path. We have some very old helpers in our village, well beyond path-age, nursed by the younger.”
“So do we,” she said.
“It is not right,” he said. “It cannot be right.”
Then he said, with certainty, “I am meant to end the path walking. I believe that is my purpose.”
“What she wants you to do?” said Myine.
“Yes. That is what she wants me to do. I am sure of it.”
“How are you to do that?”
“I don’t know,” said Arun.
That same evening a young Lasi girl was bitten by a snake. By a cobra, said some. By a pit viper, said others. By Kar said some, especially those who found it very strange—and a very bad omen—that two young girls would be bitten within weeks of each other.
They had found her too late to suck any of the poison out of the bite.
The girl, whose name as Hla, was five years old and, many prayed, was perhaps strong enough to survive the bite. For three days and nights she fought for her life. For three days and nights the Yaj-Hate (some of the time) or his helpers (most of the time) were watching over her, invoking what help Ea-pe saw fit to give.
But on the morning of the fourth day, she died. Her body was too small, the poison was too strong and too plentiful. The Yaj-Hate’s helpers prepared her for her path walk.
On the morning Hla died, a small Mera boy name Phyu strayed from his mother and entered the jungle. Interested in the movement of that big stick, he picked it up and was bitten.
The snake was a pit viper some said. No, he was a cobra, said others. It was Kar said those versed with the ways of the evil snake.
Phyu, only three years old and small for his age, was dead by the time they had carried him back to his family hut.
The Yaj-Hate’s helpers came and prepared him for his path walk.
That same morning Arun and Myine, setting out well before sunrise, walked a day and a night to locate and then proceeded up the Mera path for the top of Myiammo Taung. By midday they had arrived at the cliff.
For many days they had talked about how best to end path walking. For both tribes. They must, Arun said, convince not only the villages, but the helpers and even the Yaj-Hate’s that this was not what Ea-pe wanted from his people.
“But then you’ll be saying that the Yaj-Hates are liars,” said Myine.
“Are they not?” said Arun.
“How could they be? The Yaj-Hates are holy men.”
“They are holy men who also leads the best life of any in our tribes, holy men who are also the wealthiest of men. You said so yourself.”
“That does not make them liars.”
“Does it not?”
“Killing our old men and women to create a surplus that ends up in their own coffers, while telling us this is Ea-pe’s holy way, that makes them liars,” said Arun with conviction.
Myine said, “That also makes them killers. And makes their helpers killers, too.”
“Yes, I believe they are,” said Arun.
Myine thought about that for some while. Then said, “Perhaps you can convince the villagers. Perhaps, by showing them your feet, by walking on them again in plain view, perhaps that will convince them that Ea-pe has touched you—for he has, has he not? But how will you ever make the Yaj-Hates admit to killing the elderly for their own gain?”
Arun did not answer.
“They might not even see it as a crime,” continued Myine. “After all, path walking is an ancient tradition. They are only two Yaj-Hates in a long line of Yaj-Hates.”
“I am sure,” said Arun then, “that in their hearts they know the path walking is wrong. Perhaps they cannot face this, perhaps they have buried this too deeply, but they know that they profit from this custom, unjustly. Unfairly. They know this. And the helpers know this. In their hearts.”
Myine considered this. Then said, “How are we to make them listen to their hearts?”
“We will place ourselves in their way,” said Arun.
“What do you mean?”
“We will walk the Mera path up Myiammo Taung to the cliff. Then we will turn them back. My healed feet will be the proof. The entire Mera tribe witnessed the crushing of my feet. They will see my standing again as a resurrection, as the work of Ea-pe.”
“The Mera will,” said Myine. “The Lasi will not.”
“You’re right,” said Arun. “Only the Mera will see the truth of the miracle. But perhaps word will spread to your people as well.”
“Perhaps,” said Myine. Not convinced. Still, she agreed, Arun’s way was the best way.
They made camp some distance from the ledge, hidden from anyone arriving by rocks and trees, but still with a clear line of sight to it. They had decided not to interfere should a Lasi walker arrive, or be carried. Should, however, the walker, or the carried, be a Mera, Arun would reveal himself and urge the walker and the helpers, to return, the leap or casting undone.
And so they waited.
The night was cold and neither Arun nor Myine slept well. The warm, and early sun was very welcome. Arun walked over to the ledge, and looked out over the freshly sun-watered land. Taking in this golden expanse, he felt as if in the air, hovering, cloudlike. The sun’s rays warmed his shoulders and legs, and he knew that he was doing Daw’s will. He was doing right.
Myine came up behind him and looked out as well. “How beautiful,” she said. Mists were stirring and letting go of their hold on trees and meadows so far below. Rising, they caught the sun and glittered.
“Yes,” he agreed.
“What if no one comes,” said Myine.
“Someone will come,” said Arun.
“Soon,” said Arun. “They will soon be here.”
“You know this?”
“I don’t know how, but I do,” said Arun.
Without taking her eyes of the beauty below, she said, “I believe you.”
Early that morning Arun the Mera helper set out along the Mera path with Phyu in a little bundle which he carried in a sling around his neck. The little boy weighed as nothing to him, for Arun was a strong man.
Early that same morning two Lasi helpers set out along the Lasi path with Hla on a small stretcher which they carried between them. Although Hla was a big girl, she weighed as nothing to them, for they were both young and strong.
And so it was that in the early afternoon, overcast now and with rain on the far horizon, and moving toward them, that first Arun, and then Myine, heard steps.
Crouching behind a rock, making sure not to be seen, they waited. Soon he came into view, Arun the helper, and his small cargo.
“Mera,” whispered Arun. “I know him.”
Arun the helper arrived at the cliff, and placed Phyu on the ground some five steps from the edge. He brought out his amulets and trinkets and placed them on the ground beside Phyu, in preparation for the ceremony. All seemingly in order, Arun the helper stood up, and drew breath to begin his prayer.
Which is when Arun stepped out from behind the rock. And behind her, Myine as well.
“Arun,” he said.
The helper, startled, swiveled to face them. Within a single breath, his face shifted from surprise to annoyance to shock. He drew breath to speak but could not.
“Arun,” said his healed namesake.
Then the magnitude of seeing Arun on his feet brushed him. A big vacuum close by, disturbing the air.
“Your feet,” he said finally, looking down at them.
“Yes,” said Arun. “My feet.”
“We crushed them. I was there. I handled one of the poles. I crushed your left foot.”
“I know,” said Arun. “I know.”
“You are an apparition,” said Arun the helper. Pleaded Arun the helper.
“No, Arun. I am real.”
“It cannot be.”
“We carried you, you were almost dead. You are dead by now, dead. Are you a ghost then?”
“No, Arun. I am not a ghost. I am alive and well.”
“It cannot be.”
Then Arun the helper looked over at Myine. “You are the woman the Lasi are looking for.”
“I am,” said Myine.
“You walked their path.”
“I don’t understand,” said Arun the helper. “What are you doing here?” Then again, “This cannot be.”
“The paths,” said Arun. “Both ours and the Lasi’s. They are wrong. We do wrong by our elders.”
“It is the word of Ea-pe,” said Arun the helper. “You know that.”
“I don’t know that,” said Arun. “Do you know that? Have you heard Ea-pe say so?”
“So, how do you know?”
“The Yaj-Hate has heard it, and preached it. We know through our holy men.”
“It is wrong,” said Arun. “We do wrong by our old men and women.”
“It is the law,” said Arun the helper.
“Has this never bruised your heart?” said Arun. “To see those who have given their lives for the tribe forced to first climb Myiammo Taung, then to jump to their deaths.”
“It is the law,” said Arun the helper.
“Has this law never bruised your heart?” said Arun.
Arun the helper looked at Arun, then at Myine, then down at the dead child at his feet. Then back to Arun, “Sometimes,” he said.
“Then,” said Arun. “Then it is wrong. Your heart knows right from wrong.”
“My heart is juvenile and unlearned,” said Arun the helper.
“Your heart is the wisest of hearts,” said Arun. “All hearts are.”
At this, Arun the helper sat down on the ground beside the little bundle he had carried up the path to now cast into the wind. Then he looked up at Arun, “How did it happen?” he said. “Your feet. How did it happen?”
“I was bitten by Daw, Kar’s sister.”
“Kar does not have a sister,” said Arun the helper.
“Kar does have a sister,” said Arun. “And she bit my feet. Both of them. This healed them.”
“Can I touch them?” said Arun the helper.
“Of course,” said Arun, and walked up to where the helper sat.
Tentatively, as if expecting lightning, Arun the helper reached for and touched Arun’s feet. First one then the other. He could feel the healthy texture of young skin, could feel the warmth of blood happily nurturing all that was within. “This is true,” he said then.
“This is true,” said Arun.
Then Arun the helper bowed in Arun’s direction and said, “What would you have me do?”
Before Arun could appreciate what Arun the helper had asked, and much less think of an answer, he heard footsteps, and turned in their direction. Myine had already heard them, too, and looked anxiously down the Lasi path. Someone was definitely approaching. Arun could now hear voices, in that strange Lasi accent saying that they were just about there.
And then they were there. The two heads of the carriers appeared in unison (the front helper was shorter than the rear). Then their bodies. Between them, a small stretcher and on the stretcher a child. A girl, not that small.
Intent on their cargo, and on their imminent arrival they did not see, or did not register seeing, Arun, Myine, Arun the helper and the dead boy.
When they did notice, it was still as if they had not. They kept walking, not that surprised. Arun got the feeling that this had happened before, Lasi helpers meeting Mera helpers here: missions colliding.
Then they both saw Myine, and that caused a reaction.
“You,” said the shorter front helper. “Myine.”
Then he turned to his taller co-carrier: “Look, she’s here.”
Though their shared impulse—on orders from their Yaj-Hate—was to seize her, they were still carrying Hla’s stretcher between them, so could not charge. Not immediately, anyway.
“Myine,” said the taller helper, now slowly lowering his end of the stretcher to the ground, making the shorter helper do the same. “What are you doing here?”
“You’ve walked our path,” said the shorter helper. “We are to take you back to the Yaj-Hate.”
“I have walked our path,” said Myine. “And I’m not coming back with you.”
“I’m afraid you must,” said the shorter helper, letting go of the stretcher now resting on the ground.
“You must,” echoed the taller one, also letting go of the stretcher. Hla shifted slightly on the uneven ground. Then settled. She was dead, after all.
“You must,” said the shorter one, now taking a step toward Myine, as did his partner.
At which point Arun the helper, who saw any Lasi, helper or not, as a mortal enemy, stepped in front of Myine, “She’s not going anywhere,” he said.
The Lasi helpers looked at each other. Subduing a young woman was one thing. Facing a Mera man, and one obviously stronger than either of them, that was another.
“This is none of your concern,” said the shorter.
“It is more of my concern than you’ll ever know,” said Arun the helper.
“Why?” said the taller.
“You have heard of our recent feet crushing, I’m sure,” said Arun the helper. And they had, for Htin, the Mera Yaj-Hate, and Myo, the Lasi Yaj-Hate had exchanged messages about both Arun and Myine.
“Yes, we have.”
“This,” said Arun the helper, looking over at Arun, “is the boy whose feet were crushed.”
The two Lasi helpers looked at Arun, at his feet. “You’re lying,” said the rear one.
“I am not,” said Arun the helper. “I poled one of his feet myself.”
“But his feet,” said the shorter.
“Precisely,” said Arun the helper. “You will not touch him, nor will you touch the woman. In fact, you will conduct your ceremony for the girl and be gone.”
“I’d rather they brought her back to the village,” said Arun, shifting on his healthy feet. “I’d rather there were no more bodies, young or old, added to the mountain of bone below.”
“That is unheard of,” protested the taller.
“We cannot do that,” said the shorter.
“Of course you can,” said Arun. “And you can pay her the same respect that you pay the Yaj-Hate, or any helper, who dies. A proper burial. In the ground, proper ceremony.”
“Impossible,” said the shorter. And again, “Impossible.”
“Why impossible?” said Arun.
This exchange had Arun the helper’s full attention, for in his heart, at times, he had wondered why not all of their dead were paid the same respects as Yaj-Hates and helpers. They were, each and every one, after all, human beings and part of their tribe. But then, there was the word of Ea-pe, repeated for generations of Yaj-Hates, that decreed walking the path for the villager.
“She is not holy,” said the shorter.
“As holy as you,” said Arun.
“Preposterous,” said the shorter.
“Is she a lesser human than you? Or are you more human than she is?” said Arun. “She was a life, as holy as any life, though not quite as greedy as the Yaj-Hate, or as his helpers.”
“You defile our Yaj-Hate?” said the taller.
“No, I speak my heart,” said Arun.
“We cannot bring her back to the village,” said the taller.
“You will,” said Arun. “And with a message from me, Arun who walks again. Tell your Yaj-Hate that no Lasi will ever walk your path again.”
“We cannot tell him that,” said the shorter.
“Tell him, then, whatever you like,” said Arun. “But, now, pick up the stretcher, gently, she might roll off. Then turn around, and walk back the path you came.”
“Or?” said the taller.
“Or,” said Arun the helper, revealing the knife he always carried under his waist band.
The two Lasi helpers exchanged glances, nodded, and lifted the stretcher, indeed careful that Hla did not slip off. Then, without another word, they set out down the Lasi path.
Arun the helper turned to Arun, “Do you mean that?”
“Do I mean what?”
“About no more bodies on the bone mountain?”
“Then you want me to take him back?”
“Yes, Arun, I do.”
“For a holy burial?”
“We all deserve holy burials.”
Arun the helper seemed unsure, but answered, “As you wish.” Then said, “And you, what will you do? You cannot stay here. The Yaj-Hates will come after you.”
Arun looked at Myine, who seemed to know what he was about to answer, and nodded. He then turned to Arun the helper again, “We will stay here. If the Yaj-Hate wants to see me, he can find me here.”
“They will both come,” said Arun the helper. “They will gather all helpers and both arrive.”
“How do they know?” began Arun, then he saw: “They talk.”
“Always, and often,” said Arun the helper.
“Like a third tribe,” said Myine, which turned Arun the helper her way.
“Yes, we are like a third tribe,” he said, amazed at hearing this from the Lasi woman.
“Bring the boy back,” said Arun. “And tell the Yaj-Hate that Arun walks again. Tell all the helpers, too. Arun walks again. Ea-pe has seen me, and Daw, the beautiful sister snake of Kar’s, has healed me. I walk again. Tell them that.”
“They will not believe me.”
“They will believe if they come. They will see me walk.”
“Then they will believe, yes.”
“So take your little burden, and return him to the village. Tell them that Arun who walks again wants him to have a holy burial.” Then he asked, “What was his name?”
“Phyu deserves the holy burial. We all do.”
Arun the helper collected his ceremonial trinkets and put them in his pouch, then lifted the little dead bundle and put it back in the neck sling. “As you wish,” he said.
“You don’t agree,” said Arun
“I will do as you say,” said Arun the helper. “But I have much to think about.”
Without waiting for a reply, Arun the helper turned and left with his little burden down the Mera path.
Arun the helper had been a helper for as long as he could remember. He had been born a helper, at least that is what he was told, and often, by his father who was the Yaj-Hate’s first cousin.
Called into the Yaj-Hate’s service almost as soon as he could walk, he had been taught, and was still being taught, the holy scriptures about Ea-pe and his wonders, his creations, his rules.
And he had been taught that Ea-pe no longer—or at least very seldom—meddled in tribal affairs, that he has now left all that up to the his Yaj-Hates, his appointed deputies.
And he had been taught about Kar, the dark cobra of Evil, the tempter, the coiled shame at the bottom of the pit of men’s minds whose fangs were sheer poison that could kill the spirit.
He had, however, been taught nothing about Daw, Kar’s sister, who Arun the boy said had healed his feet.
His feet. The very feet he had helped reduce to little but mangled mass of flesh and bone, now perfectly healed. Ea-pe had taken a hand in tribal affairs, there was no doubt about that. Ea-pe had touched the boy, had healed the boy. The boy was holy. There was no doubt about that.
Still, what the boy said made little of Ea-pe’s teachings about the path. The path, said Ea-pe, was holy. The path, said Arun, had to cease and he would see it cease.
This was the conflict storming back and forth within him as he walked the path down Myiammo Taung, dead Phyu in his sling. Arun had asked him to see to Phyu’s holy burial, and if Arun the boy asked him, was that not as if Ea-pe had asked him? Who was he to question this? It was not his place to argue with Ea-pe, he could see that. But he knew that Htin would not see it that way. At all.
So, what was he to do back in the village? What was he to tell Htin? And what would the villagers say when they saw him return with Phyu?
He answered this last question by making his first decision: he would enter the village unseen. He would circle it to the west and enter the Yaj-Hate compound from the north. There was very little chance of encountering villagers there, some chance, but not much.
He was now doing battle with his second decision: what to tell Htin?
Htin would be furious with him, this he knew. Htin’s word was never to be questioned or defied. And Tribal Law, which was Ea-pe’s Law, so said the scriptures, was never to be broken. Yet, here he came, defying Htin’s decree to cast Phyu to the air, and so breaking Tribal Law. He had a hard time facing even his vision of Htin’s reaction, easily roused to anger that he was. It would be far removed from pleasant.
And what to tell him? The question seemed to have no answer.
The path was coming to an end, and now, rather than veering right toward the southern edge of the village, he continued ahead through the undergrowth to circle the village to the west.
While half his mind worked the task of moving and placing his feet, the other half still battled with the question. What to tell him? How to explain? Had he been more attentive, he would not have been taken by such surprise.
“Arun!” his uncle, the fisherman, cried, waiving from the lake path. Along with him were four or five other fishermen carrying between them what seemed to be a good catch. All smiles, job well done.
When Arun the helper did not answer, his uncle shouted again, “Arun!” And waved, “Here!”
Arun had seen him, but on some level hoped that if he didn’t answer, the fishermen would turn apparition and vanish. Or they would no longer notice him. No such luck.
His uncle had now left the path, and was walking toward him. “Arun. Do you not hear?”
“What are you doing here?” Then he looked at the dead boy in the sling. Once. Then again, to make sure. “And why have you brought Phyu back?”
Arun had no answer to that, and having no answer, rather than saying nothing said something stupid, “It is Ea-pe’s wish, Uncle.”
“Do his parents know?” his uncle asked.
“Is he still dead?” This question came from another fisherman, just arrived to see what was going on. Interested.
“Yes,” said Arun. “He is still dead.”
“But not dead enough to walk the path?” This was his uncle’s question.
“I cannot answer that, Uncle. I have to bring him to your cousin, the Yaj-Hate.”
“He will then tell us why?” asked the other fisherman.
“If it pleases him,” said Arun.
“I’m sure it will please him,” said his uncle.
“I have to hurry,” said Arun.
“So be it,” said the uncle, and stood aside. So did the other fisherman, letting Arun and Phyu pass them. Arun soon crossed the lake path, clearly seen by the remaining fishermen, all thrilled to see something so unusual. And murmuring between them. Asking questions Arun’s could not make out but could well imagine.
Arun felt the urge to run, but running would not solve this problem. He had been seen, and by the time he would reach Htin, word would be all over the village: he had returned with a not dead enough Phyu. The Yaj-Hate would tell them why. He could hear the rumor.
On hearing from Arun the helper what had taken place, Htin did not rise to anger as Arun had expected. Instead he fell silent for many breaths. Then he asked, “Are you sure it was Arun?”
“Yes, Lord. Absolutely. I know him well.”
“Have you told anyone about his feet?”
“Are you certain?”
“And you are not mistaken?”
“Make sure that no one is told about this.”
“No one,” Htin repeated, his dark eyes boring fiercely into the helper’s.
“No one,” said Arun. “No one.”
Htin then fell silent again, considering how best to resolve this dilemma. Finally, he said to Arun the helper, “Let the village know that Phyu was not properly prepared for the path, you returned him to complete this preparation. You will bring him back to the path at dawn tomorrow.”
“This has never happened before, Lord. Will they not ask questions?”
“What do I tell them?”
“Tell them something sensible,” said Htin. Then he waved his hand in dismissal. Arun the helper left to explain his return with Phyu to a very curious tribe.
Myo, the Lasi Yaj-Hate, had insisted on the meeting. He needed to see Htin now, urgently. He would come to Htin, or meet him anywhere. Could he come now?
The Lasi messenger returned to Myo after nightfall, exhausted but bearing good news. Htin said to come right away. And yes, agreeing, they do need to talk.
Myo set out immediately, walking through the night, guided by many armed and betorched helpers. He arrived before dawn and was now literally catching his breath while gulping down some invigorating tea in Htin’s hut.
He was telling Htin, “I sent two helpers to Myiammo Taung with a girl who had been bitten. They returned with the girl. When asked they said that they had been told by a Mera boy named Arun to do so, and also told by one of your helpers—also named Arun, apparently and stronger than either of the two—to do as they were told. The threat was more than implied. Your helper had a knife. My helpers were unarmed. They had no choice but to return.”
Htin listened intently. Then, wanting to make sure, “What did the Mera boy look like?”
Myo called out to one of his helpers stationed outside. “Dara, come here.”
The shorter of the two Lasi carriers stepped into the hut.
“What did the Mera boy look like?” said Myo. “Describe him.”
Dara described Arun as best he could.
“And his feet?” asked Htin. “Any marks, signs of injury?”
“No, Lord. Perfectly healthy. We were told that they had been crushed, but that, of course, was nonsense.”
“Thank you, Dara. That will be all.” said Myo. Dara left.
Htin refilled Myo’s cup.
“Is that the boy?” said Myo. “Whose feet were crushed?”
Htin did not answer right away. The problem, his very real and very serious problem was that Myo’s story corroborated his own helper’s account of what had happened, and the Lasi helper’s description of Arun, much to his credit, painted a good and accurate picture of the boy. There was no doubt. It was the boy Arun, and his feet had been healed. Then he said:
“Yes, I believe so.”
“But that’s impossible,” said Myo.
“Yes,” said Htin. “Quite impossible.” But then seemed to contradict himself, “The boy told my helper that Kar has a sister, and that her name is Daw. The boy further told him that it was this sister snake that, by biting his feet, had healed them.”
“Yes, quite. But my helper swears, swears that Arun’s feet are healed. Swears and swears again that a miracle has taken place. And this helper—he is a kinsman of mine—has always been loyal, reliable, and has absolutely no reason to lie to me.”
“But that’s impossible,” repeated Myo.
“Besides, your own helpers seem to corroborate.”
“Impossible,” seemed to be Myo’s only explanation.
“Impossible or not, it seems Ea-pe is playing tricks on us.”
Myo downed the rest of his tea and held out his cup for more. Htin obliged. Then Myo said, “If this is so, if the boy’s feet are in fact healed, what do we do?”
“That,” said Htin, more to himself than to Myo, “is the question, is it not?”
Arun the helper had returned with Phyu. This was unprecedented. Never before had a child come back from Myiammo Taung, un-thrown. And now, this Lasi girl, the same. Returned from Myiammo Taung, un-thrown. Because Arun, the boy, whose feet Ea-pe had apparently healed, willed it so.
All the village knew about Phyu’s return. Arun’s explanation had appeased some but certainly not all. The unprecedented is hard to explain. Believingly. So far, though, not a word about the boy’s feet. If indeed that were true. Htin thought, hoped, that his helper had been mistaken, but it was a fading hope.
“And, to make matters worse,” said Myo, interrupting Htin’s thoughts, “Your feet boy was accompanied by the missing Lasi girl, Myine.”
“My helper told me.”
“If there is any truth, any truth at all to this feet business, we must do something. Should word get out…”
Htin held up his hand. “I know. I know. Word will not get out. We will take care of this.”
“Where are they now?” asked Myo.
“I don’t know,” said Htin. “They could be anywhere.”
“Perhaps still atop Myiammo Taung,” suggested Myo.
“That is a strong possibility,” agreed Htin. What he did not share with Myo was that Arun, his helper, had reported the boy as saying, ‘If the Yaj-Hate wants to see me, he can find me here.’
Myo nodded. “If he’s set on turning others back, which it seems like he is, then would it not be safe to assume that your Arun boy and Myine are still atop Myiammo Taung.”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“That might be very convenient.”
“Yes, that might be convenient indeed,” agreed Htin.
Over the next two cups of tea, Myo and Htin formed their plans.
As agreed, at dawn two days later, two processions, one carrying Phyu and one carrying Hla, set out for the Mera and Lasi paths, respectively; each led by their Yaj-Hate. Both tribes were up and out in force to say their goodbyes, again, to their lost children. Much, however, was made of the large contingencies—it seemed that the Yaj-Hates had brought every single helper along. Also, why would the Yaj-Hates head up the processions in person? After all, these were only dead village children.
They were soon out of site, and the villagers—though still sharing views on these strange times—returned to their days, many to their cots.
By agreement, they would proceed up their paths slowly, to converge atop Myiammo Taung by midday. If Arun the boy was still there, along with the refugee girl Myine, this sordid matter could be dealt with once and for all, and well beyond the ken of either tribe, which is how both Htin and Myo would have it be.
Htin had been in two minds about whether to bring helper Arun along, but finally settled on doing so: Arun was strong, and he might need strength. Also, he needed to test Arun’s loyalty to the scriptures, to him.
None of the other helpers had been told about the boy’s feet. That was another thing which had divided Htin’s mind. Finally, he decided that telling them ran the risk of seeding doubts. He needed no doubts on this journey.
He hoped that Myo, as agreed, had kept this from his helpers as well.
They made silent, though good progress up the mountain.
Arun and Myine had in fact, and at some length, considered whether to remain on the mountain or not. It was a given that Arun the helper’s return with Phyu would elicit a response from Htin. Arun was sure of that. The same with the Lasi return. Myine was sure of that. That spelled danger.
“They will come,” said Myine. “With many helpers.”
“I think you are right.”
“They will kill us.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
Myine waited for more.
“The Mera helpers all saw my feet crushed. If Htin brings many, they will all see my feet healed. That will touch them, and deeply.”
“The Yaj-Hate holds deep sway,” warned Myine.
“I know that.”
“They may not believe their eyes.”
Arun considered that. “But what if we run? We are outcasts. We will be hunted for the rest of our lives.”
Myine saw that.
Arun said, “We have to face the Yaj-Hates at some point, or the path walking will continue.”
Myine saw that too.
“I think it is better, then, to remain,” said Arun. “To face them now.”
Although that option made her very apprehensive, Myine saw the wisdom of it, and finally agreed.
On the morning of the coordinated processions up the two paths, over a meager meal, under an overcast sky, Myine asked, “When do you expect them?”
“Today,” said Arun.
They finished their meal in silence.
Close to midday Arun heard them. Many Mera feet moving quietly. Then, many Lasi feet, too. Myine heard them as well.
As agreed, they stood, side by side, in plain view not far from the edge of the cliff. Then Htin appeared, and behind him, as far as Arun could make out, his entire retinue of helpers.
From the Lasi direction, their Yaj-Hate, and his helpers.
The Mera carried Phyu, the Lasi the little girl, Hla.
Htin and the Lasi Yaj-Hate stopped and held up their hands in almost perfect unison. Well-rehearsed, thought Arun, though he doubted it could have been so.
The sun had cleared the sky and now stood high and hot. A stray cloud out in the west, more clouds to the south. A wind raced among the rocks and the scattered trees, shushing here and shushing there. Other than this, there were no sounds.
The small group of two, and the two larger groups of Yaj-Hates and many helpers, stood facing each other. Both the Mera and Lasi helpers were fanning out on both sides of their Yaj-Hates. Ten, at least, to each group.
The Lasi helpers pointing some at Myine, and whispering. Hostile.
The Mera helpers were all looking at Arun, at his feet, and also whispering. Less hostile, confused.
The silence stretched and stretched. A bird cried from high above, swung out of sight, settled somewhere, cried again. The wind held its breath.
No one whispered now.
And still the silence stretched.
Then Htin spoke, “Arun. Myine. You are traitors and violators of sacred law. You are both fugitives from Ea-pe’s justice. Now there is but one choice for you. You can do the honorable thing—and so appease Ea-pe—by leaping voluntarily, or you can be thrown, and so forever into disgrace. You have no other choices.”
Arun said, “Htin. You speak of Ea-pe’s justice. What do you know of Ea-pe’s justice? Look at my feet. The feet you had your helpers crush only days ago. The feet you saw crushed with your own eyes. Look at them. This is Ea-pe’s doing. This is Ea-pe’s true justice.”
Then—before Htin could find a suitable reply, even though he had thought of many on his way up the mountain—Myo, although he had agreed to say nothing to this Mera boy, to let Htin say what needed said, had to speak, “This is Kar’s doing. This is a trick, a delusion. Those evil feet are a trick.”
“A trick?” said Arun. “Kar? Oh, no. Not Kar. Far from it.”
Myo turned to his helpers. “Do not be taken in by this renegade. He is on Kar’s errand. He does Kar’s bidding. He has a black heart, Kar slithering at the bottom of it.”
“No, not Kar,” said Arun. “I am here at Daw’s request.”
And then, loudly, making sure everyone heard, Arun said, “Daw, whom I had never heard about before. Daw, who is not taught us by our Yaj-Hates. Daw, who might even be unknown to our Yaj-Hates. Daw, I discovered, is Kar’s holy sister. And this,” he pointed to his feet, “is her doing. Her message to me, to all of us.”
“Daw,” screamed Myo. “Kar’s sister?”
Although Htin now held up a hand as a signal for Myo to stop talking, the Lasi Yaj-Hate would have none of that. “You are lying. There is no Daw. Kar has no sister. You bear false witness, and with every word you further breach our sacred laws and scriptures. You no longer have the option to leap. You will be thrown.”
And with that Myo turned to his helpers, “Cast them over the edge.”
The helpers looked at each other, at their Yaj-Hate, at the two fugitives. Was Myo serious? He looked serious enough.
But before his helpers could move to carry out Myo’s decree, Htin spoke, and loudly, “Hold still. Everyone hold still.”
Then to Arun, “My offer still stands. Leap voluntarily, and Ea-pe will look kindly upon your sacrifice. I give you twelve breaths to consider.”
Then to Myo, who was clearly outraged at being countermanded by his Mera peer, “If after twelve breaths, they have not leaped, you will throw Myine, we will throw Arun.”
Then to all, after one deep inhale, “One.”
Then, after a second, deep inhale, “Two.”
Arun the helper looked at his defiant namesake, at his feet. And looking, and hearing Htin slowly count the twelve breaths that stood between Arun leaping on his own, or being thrown, he also listened to his recollection of Arun’s words: ‘Daw, whom I had never heard about before. Daw, who is not taught us by our Yaj-Hates. Daw, who might even be unknown to our Yaj-Hates. Daw, I discovered, is Kar’s holy sister. And this,’ pointing to his feet, ‘is her doing. Her message to me, to all of us.’
There was no denying his feet. They were a miracle. So why, why, would their Yaj-Hates be so quick to kill him. If anything would anger Ea-pe, would not killing one of his wonders—for Arun the boy was a wonder—anger him more than anything. Arun the helper could not make sense of this. No matter how he turned and twisted the pieces, they would not fit, and his heart could not agree. What they were doing, what they were about to do, was wrong.
To his left, he heard Htin say “Six.”
But what could he do? How could he follow his heart?
Then Arun the helper discovered that his feet knew how, for they slowly walked him across the ten or so paces that separated him from Arun and Myine. By the time Arun the helper reached the two fugitives, Htin—who by an amazing feat of will had not broken his count seeing his helper cross from his camp to that of the outlaws—reached, “Nine.”
Myo was about to scream something, but he dared not interrupt the twelve-count. Nothing should ever, for any reason, interrupt the twelve-count. As Htin said, “Eleven,” Myo looked right, then left at his helpers. Be ready, is what his look said. Be ready.
Htin took another deep breath, then exhaled it along with, “Twelve.”
With that breath it seemed that all breathing atop Myiammo Taung ceased. All now steeling themselves for Htin’s next words. Those that would signal the attack.
Arun the boy looked at Htin, unblinkingly, daring him to give the order.
Myine, too, looked at Htin, not unblinkingly.
Arun the helper pulled his shirt cloth aside to reveal the handle of a dagger, in a clear signal that he would hurt or kill anyone who approached.
Myo, not able to hold his tongue, “What are we waiting for?”
Htin gave the order, “Cast them across.”
There was no rush of helper feet to obey. To be sure, there was much movement among the Lasi helpers, but these movements were irresolute, the Mera helper standing with the two looked very fit and very strong, and he had now removed the dagger from his waist band, and was holding it out in front of him in a clear challenge to anyone who dared. Unless you thirst for death, it said, do not approach.
The Mera helpers, who all held Arun, their peer, in high regard, moved not at all. They could feel Htin’s fury rise, and they all feared it, but a fundamental conflict was coming to light for most of them: all was far from right here. Why would Arun side with the fugitives? Why would they cast Arun the boy across when he could re-grow feet? They had all seen them mangled beneath the bloody poles, and there, in clear sight, they stood, healthy as any of theirs. Was this not a sign from Ea-pe? And who was Daw? Why had they never heard of her? And if she was Kar’s brother, why had Htin not told them?
Thoughts like these raced like a to-and-fro grass fire among them.
Myo looked around in disbelief. No one had moved. Again he screamed, “What are we waiting for?” and made to be the first one to approach.
Arun the helper readied his dagger to receive him.
Myo thought better of going anywhere.
Then, in desperation more than anything he screamed, “He who does not cast these three across, will himself be cast across.”
Still, there was only stirring, no walking, by Lasi feet.
Myo and Htin exchanged glances. The understanding between them was that they did not understand.
Myo made up his mind. Htin, sensitive to this, perceived it. He turned to Myo and said, loudly, “No.”
Myo did not, or refused to, hear. Instead he raised his hands to the sky, leaned his head back and closed his eyes, letting the ecstasy of fury fill him from feet up. Then he whispered, three times, clearly in the silence, “Kar. Kar. Kar.”
If Kar heard, he made no immediate sign. Htin looked both confused and aghast, expecting the worst. Myo looked around him. No Kar.
Again, Myo raised his hands to the sky, and on the crest of fury, again whispered, three times, “Kar. Kar. Kar.”
Still the black cobra would not oblige the Yaj-Hate.
Myo called for him a third time, “Kar. Kar. Kar.”
And this time Kar responded.
Many later said that he had fallen out of the sky. Others said that he had sprung out of the mountain. Yet other said that he had blown like a thunder up the Lasi path to form a cloud by Myo’s feet. A cloud that once it cleared revealed the largest cobra anyone had ever seen.
At first, Myo himself seemed as shocked as any that his incantation had worked. But perhaps that was only the sudden fear of being coiled by the dark one, so close, so deadly.
Twelve feet long, and thicker than the bole of a young tree, Kar now rose and spread his hood for all to see, including the pink and angry v-shaped scar from Daw’s long ago teeth. His eyes rose to the level of Myo’s and his mouth—which revealed two, long, yellow fangs as he spoke—said, “What would you have me do?”
Myo, too afraid to speak, had no answer.
Kar pivoted and faced Htin. “What would you have me do?”
Htin, recovering sooner than his counterpart, after swallowing twice, then again, pointed to the three fugitives and said, “Them.”
Kar faced them, understood. He slowly lowered himself to the ground then coiled in preparation. His shiny scales reflecting blue of sky into the black of slime as he now uncoiled and made his first slow slither in their direction, fangs alive.
An angry weather system raced along the ground from the heart of Tibet, across eastern Nepal and India, into the heart of northern Burma, around and then up the steepest side of Myiammo Taung to suddenly come to rest at the feet of Arun and Myine.
Daw took not kindly to her brother’s interference.
Kar, now within striking distance of Arun the helper, stopped. He rose and tilted his head as if cocking an ear: he heard something no one else did. Yet.
Something that made him hesitate.
Something that in the next moment materialized at Arun’s and Myine’s feet.
Something long, strong, and beautiful
Daw now rose, as a glittering rainbow might rise, and spread her hood. Kar remained frozen.
Htin swallowed again.
Myo looked at Daw, then around him to see if others saw this, too, or was this his own illusion? From the faces of those he saw, they saw this, too. He looked over at Htin, who seemed to have as much trouble as he did believing his eyes.
Then he looked back at Daw, then at Kar, now cowering—if a cobra can in fact cower—before the might and the beauty of his sister.
Something ugly, something desperate, something very threatened rose within Myo and raced across his tongue: “Kill them!”
The plea was clearly meant for Kar, but he took no notice, seemingly busy pleading with his sister for his own safety.
“Kill them!” screamed Myo again.
And again, now facing his helpers: “Kill them!”
But no one killed anyone.
Feeling his world slowly sinking into a not understood blackness beneath, Myo reacted out of sheer self-preservation, taking desperate matters into his own hands. And so he rushed Arun and Myine with only one thing in mind, to push them both over the cliff and into the fate they so deserved.
For two long breaths it seemed that Myo was the only thing in the world moving, and his desperation made him move fast. Arun the boy seemed frozen by surprise, as did Myine. Arun the helper perceived threat, but seemed too slow to react to protect them. Myo was upon them.
The only one who did react in time was Kar, who, apparently fed up with the Yaj-Hate and the spectacle he had brought about by summoning him, swung the four or five lower feet of his body into the path of the onrushing Myo who now tripped over him, stuttered, stumbled, wobbled, and teetered. And then, with a scream so thick with defeat as to cause a dark cloud, he toppled over the edge and down the precipice for the bone mountain below.
The scream lasted all the way down, and then ended abruptly.
Kar now rose and looked around him. He was done here. And with a few strong slithers was gone.
Daw still shone. She faced Htin. And spoke. Clearly, and in the Mera tongue. “I am in your scriptures, Yaj-Hate. If you would bother to read them properly and be less concerned about your own power and welfare. What shall it be? Am I or am I not?”
Htin, clearly stunned by Myo’s fate and at being addressed by Daw, said nothing; could say nothing. His throat lacked the moisture to function. His attempt at speech a croak.
“What shall it be, Yaj-Hate?” said Daw. “Am I or am I not?”
Finally, Htin again managed to swallow, and say, “You are.”
“Well, then,” said Daw. “I am glad this is settled.” And with that she swam away out over the edge of the mountain and into vivid memory.
Again, the wind was holding its breath. A careful ear might hear a choir of beating hearts, each strong and racing.
Then the Lasi helpers, now leaderless, began to shift on their feet, uncertain as to what was to be done next. Two of them still carried Hla between them, and now, arms aching, finally put her down. Were they still to perform the ceremony? They seemed to think not. Looking not to Htin for direction but to Arun, the boy.
A similar question seemed to rise among the Mera helpers, but they seemed more certain that Phyu was not to be cast across. Arun had made that clear.
Arun, who now looked at Htin, as if asking him a question. But it was Htin who, to everyone’s surprise, asked a question of Arun, “What would you have us do?”
“Bring him back,” said Arun. “Give him a holy burial. And,” now he addressed the Lasi helpers, “you do the same. Take the girl back and give her a holy burial.”
Although none of the Lasi helpers questioned Arun’s command, only one of them actually answered. “Yes, Lord,” is what he said.
Arun took exception this this reply. “I am not your Lord,” he said. “I am not elevated or beyond reach. I am not a Yaj-Hate. I am a boy, a man, a human, just like you, and you, and,” now looking directly at Htin, “and you.”
Htin bowed in acceptance of this.
“My only wish,” said Arun. “My only wish is that our tribes might settle their differences. For, truly, they are few or none. All of us have, for far too long, lived in fear and hatred of each other. There is nothing here to fear or hate, only such things as are dreamed up by the Yaj-Hates, and this for their own benefit. Am I right, Htin?”
“Yes, Lord,” said Htin.
Arun did not correct him.
Instead he led the Mera and the Lasi to and trough a tribal embrace that lasts to this day.
Ask any Meralasi. He will tell you.