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May 20, 2024

Freedom of Choice

By Kerry D. Stewart

The fire had died to embers.

All Kish had to do was find a vessel for one of the glowing orange chunks and carry it away into the forest. The cubes of wood hurt horribly when they touched skin, and if they did, the smell of burnt hair and flesh filled the world, so Kish wanted to be very, very careful.

And quiet. If the others woke, they would slap him and roar and post a guard around him for days.

He wasn't sure why they didn't want to share fire. Perhaps they thought someone would set the thick forest alight, which would kill them all. It could be that if other families had fire, they would settle here, and take game Kish's family needed to survive. Or maybe it was because if they alone had fire it would draw other people to join their group, making them strong, making their children strong.

But she had been by herself, not accompanied by tribal brothers; shy, humble, the fur robe she wore dropping over one shoulder -- she must have been so cold that she could not feel the uncovering of her skin. She had ducked her head at meeting him, a gesture of submission, and had sniffed him when he grasped her shoulders. She had turned away, pulling the fur up over her bareness. "Donai," she had said, rubbing her hands over an imaginary fire. "Donai."

Kish had thought he understood her immediately, as her dark eyes looked deeply into his. She was cold, and alone.

He had grabbed a few branches from the nearest tree, crumpled the twigs in little pile, and waved his hands over them, imitating a fire's moving flames.

"Ah! Donai!" she cried, extending her arms, her hands together. "Donai!"

Pulling on her arm, he had tried to get her to return to his family's fire with him. Her gasps and panicked movement and utterances put an end to that.

"Teh!" she exclaimed, running to a tree and hiding behind it. When he followed to look at her, she pleaded, with sorrowful eyes, long lashes framing them. "Donai."

She was out there in the night, cold, lonely, needy.

Kish opted to take two flat rocks and a stick, and roll three glowing embers onto one rock, covering it with the other. No one sleeping along the walls moved or noticed; he was free to stand, drape his blanket fur over his shoulders (making sure the edges did not drag on the ground and make a rustle), and pad noiselessly on bare feet away from the fire.

To her, the dark-eyed one, who pleaded for fire. "Donai," she called it. He named her in the moonlight, "Ka-be-Donai" -- "Who Pleads For Donai."

He backtracked his own steps under the shine of the moon, glad that snow had stayed in the sky for so long and not dropped to the ground to make his trail visible.

The tree behind which she had hidden was in sight, but Ka-be-Donai was not. Kish felt his heart falter and sink, until the shadow beneath the tree stirred, and Ka-be-Donai rose, her fur robe unfurling like a forest-lily in the spring. She stepped toward him, stopped.

Kish lifted one hot rock from the other to show her the glowing char. He smiled. "Donai," he said, meeting her in her own language.

"Donai! Donai! Donai!" she cried in a small voice that would not carry far.

Two tall men appeared from behind other trees. One strode forward to take the flat rocks and the stick from Kish, who stood stunned to see that Ka-be-Donai had accomplices nearby.

The accomplices disappeared into the night with the fire. "A debe," said the woman before him, looking up at his face in the light of the moon.

"Kish," he said, touching his head. He reached out to her, tapped her forehead. "Ka-be-Donai."

Her face split with a smile, her eyes shadowed, her grin illuminated. She touched her own forehead. "Ka-be-Donai," she said, and then put her hand flat on Kish's bare chest where his blanket gaped. "Kish."

She understands me! At once he was vindicated in his choice of action; the woman could learn a human language, and he had made an ally of Others in the world. He had given them the heat of his tribe's fire; they would no doubt give him gifts in return.

Ka-be-Donai ran a few steps away from him, then paused, her mouth open in a surprised expression. With a subtle movement, she let her fur robe drop away from her body, revealing her side and haunch, blue in the light of the moon. She looked back at him over her bare shoulder, and smiled.

There was no doubt it was an invitation, that Ka-be-Donai had something on her mind beyond the embers of a fire. Kish connected the touch of her hand on his chest with her smile, and followed a few steps.

"Kish," she spoke, smiling so as to make dimples visible in the dim light, and then ran on, shrugging the fur completely away from her body, carrying her robe over one arm while the moon illuminated the contours of her back and buttocks and legs.

The cold ground only made his feet leap higher and faster, through the trees, over the ridge, down the moonlit slopes to the creek, which was low with the lack of snowfall this year. Ka-be-Donai splashed across in a few steps, barefoot, laughing. Kish followed, even though the creek was a boundary between his family and a neighboring one. There was a thick spruce grove on the opposite side, flat and bare with old needles suffocating what grass might grow.

There Ka-be-Donai seemed to fall, though her fur robe spread before her as she landed.

Kish knew many things about this. He knew that his family would frown upon his giving coals to a stranger. He knew that following a stranger in the woods was dangerous. He knew that crossing boundaries of hunting grounds was foolish and not permissible and an invitation to Death. But he also knew that Ka-be-Donai had more courage than he had -- she cared nothing for boundaries or admonitions against meeting strangers.

As Kish chose to fall, the world seemed to change, leaving behind family and legends and teaching tales; the darkness with chips of moonlight welled with heat and completion and acceptance and promise of pleasure. He had found a mate, one not specified by family, to be sure, but willing, and from a different blood line -- everything he needed. He hoped he knew how to proceed.

When the sky grew light, Ka-be-Donai put her hands against his back, her feet on his buttocks, and shoved him off her robe into the pine needles. While he gaped and fumbled for his leggings, she shook her fur robe and slung it over her arm as she walked back to the creek.

She waded across as before, holding the fur high. She tossed the robe on the far side, then submerged herself in a pool except for her head. Arching her back, she tensed her muscles, then leaned forward, exhaling. Kish saw some cloudiness emerging from between her legs. Again she arched and bent, and this time there was no cloud. She stepped out of the water, stripped the drops from her skin with her hand, and donned her fur robe.

"Ka-be-Donai, wait!" Kish cried as he crossed the icy stream, bare-legged. On the far side of the creek, he hopped and stepped into his leg-coverings, the wet on his calves making the dressing difficult, and hurriedly tied the thong at his waist. He shrugged into his robe and ran after the woman.

He caught up with her and smiled at her. She smiled back, and said something completely unintelligible.

"I don't understand," Kish said, tapping his head.

The brows of Ka-be-Donai drew together briefly, but then she smiled, as though understanding would follow on a rainbow slide. "Ves, ves," she said, crooking her fingers. "Ves im Ka-be-Donai."

He understood she was beckoning him to follow her. But he didn't really wish to leave his family -- he had an honored place there, as a hunter and a man-to-be. And his spear and throwing stick were back there in the family cave, as well. To follow Ka-be-Donai would mean the loss of everything he had. "No," he said, gesturing with his fingers in the same way. "Come back with me."

"Teh," she said, tossing her hair, making the ends flip droplets of water into the air. "Teh." She began to walk away, along the creek. She didn't look back.

Kish watched her little ankles and remembered what she had taught him in the darkness. She was his woman now, and he did not want to relinquish her after one night. He hurried forward, and joined her, in spite of the fact that she was leading him through his own family's territory.

"Cha deng," she said to him over her shoulder as he caught up. "Cha deng." She flicked her fingers against his chest like one would a pesty insect landing on one's arm.

"Ka-be-Donai, wait. Where are we going?"

She looked up at him over the fur robe. Her upper lip curled just a little, and she spoke to him in words he didn't understand. She pointed back along the trail with one hand, and with the other, made the follow me gesture again. She looked from one hand to another, and then frowned at him.

For a woman, she was very bossy. Had any woman of his family acted so, she would have deserved and received a beating. But he remembered the plea in her eyes as she begged for fire, and how she had made him her mate in the night. Before long, he was sure, he would be able to teach her his language and bring her before his family as a welcome addition. He patted her follow me hand.

Her face softened with a smile, and she turned away again on the game trail through his land.

Kish knew that a smile meant good things: agreement, food in plenty, safety; and so he went with her willingly, leaving his family's rules and cave and land for a new and exciting prospect. He had given what was most precious as a gift to Ka-be-Donai and her people, and was sure that his choice would bring him admiration, gifts, and a long life.

By the time the sun was high and warming the air, they passed again out of Kish's family's hunting grounds and climbed through the hilly forest to the grasslands, to an encampment newly dug into a bank along a swiftly flowing stream. Women and children stared at Kish as he followed Ka-be-Donai to the back of the gouge in the hill, where an old woman fed sticks into a fire, sticks taken from the arms of an emaciated man, whose scratched and balding head was tethered by a leather strap around his neck. The old woman slapped at him to drop the sticks and get out of her way.

"Gaf, las kerem Kish, mel kes donai." Ka-be-Donai turned to Kish and rapped her fingers against him once more. She tugged his robe from his shoulders. "Ba cha deng."

The old woman climbed to her feet slowly. "Cha deng?" she questioned and circled Kish. She pinched his arms gently, ran her hands down his shins to his feet. "Ba. Ba cha deng. Kish-Kish-Kish!" Her voice broke into a cackle, and then two tall young men grabbed Kish's arms and began to wrap them with a leather strip behind his back.

"Cheba cha deng?" said a deep voice, and Kish saw a burly man, his long hair braided with bones, approach him.

"I brought you fire!" Kish shouted in confusion. "I gave you the gift of our cave!"

The tall young men knuckled Kish to his knees, then flat on the ground. "Cha deng," said the thick-set man, and pulled from a leather holder an obsidian knife.

"No, no, stop, I helped you, wait -- "

The knife sheared off Kish's hair close to his scalp, over and over again, until his head was bare to the sun and the wind, making him dizzy with the loss of its weight. He felt he had no balance, that if he could stand, he might accidentally fly off the face of the world. All that he could say was a deep sighing, "Ohhhh," until the two tall men pulled his legs apart, and the bone-haired man grasped Kish's testicles.

"NOOOHH!" screamed Kish, rolling violently to his right. He managed to bowl his way through the legs of the men, knocking one of them down. His wrists began to come loose of the leather bindings, and he staggered to his feet and ran back down the path, working at his wrists as he ran.

A flint-headed arrow lodged in a tree beside the path where it left the grassland, which lent Kish an adrenaline surge that sent him sailing through the brush. He could hear the pounding footsteps behind him, and while he flailed the thong from his hands, he remembered a log that he and Ka-be-Donai had stepped over, a log fallen in the long grass. It would be close by, and he slowed his pace only a little before leaping over the small log.

A cry right behind him and a thudding fall told Kish that his pursuer had not anticipated the hazard. Hands free, Kish ran with all his might to escape Ka-be-Donai's people.

It was the next dawn, and Kish had dug himself a wallow under a pine tree, so that he could cover himself with pine needles and loamy dirt against the cold. He dared not present himself at his family's cave, nearly bald, his fur robe gone, his tribe betrayed.

His brother Os was the one who found him, following the accusing calls of the ravens. In no time at all, his father was there, his face relieved to the point of happiness, but controlled by the realization that his son had made some very bad choices ... that could mean death for them all. "My son, what have you done?"

"And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat."

Genesis 3: 9 - 12

Article © Kerry D. Stewart. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-07-25
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