A Chance to Say Goodbye
The oak hills were a welcome sight as the first carts finally emerged from the swamp. Everyone gathered and made camp early in celebration of passing their first trial. They spent the evening commiserating over bug bites and heat issues that plagued the group, but the prospects of heading into the luxury of the rolling oak meadows buoyed everyone’s spirit.
It had taken over a week to get through the marsh, and while the oak glen was less confining, it wasn’t any faster to traverse. The continuous ups and downs of the hilly terrain proved to be a challenge as they banded together to drag their carts up the long slow grades and then were confronted with trying to prevent them from running out of control on the downhill leg. By the time they finally got to the fork in the trail, they had exhausted their provisions and elected to camp for a few days to allow the hunters to try to stock up for the next leg of the journey.
On the second night of their respite, Tarra had a bad dream and wouldn’t stop crying. She and the other women had conspired to have their cycles and wanted to be alone for a couple of days. Chilcoat left Lannon to watch over their needs and returned along the hard fought trail they had blazed through the marshlands. He was surprised that the swamp was already showing signs of recovery and would soon forget their passage completely.
He had briefed the congregation on how arduous the next leg of the journey would be and offered to return to the village with anyone who had had a change in heart about continuing. It also gave him the opportunity to replenish their water supply. The three families that elected to return with him quickly reunited with their friends and relatives and told tales of the unspeakable hardships they had endured. Chilcoat remained only long enough to load his cart with fresh water and to check on how Randa was doing.
As he approached Rancon’s tent, he knew that things were not well. There were wilted flowers strewn about the closed door. Randa had fought bravely for many days, but the burn wouldn’t leave him. His eyes clouded and his skin peeled and bled as he got weaker each day. He rested only when the lotion was freshly applied and then only for a short time. As the ointment ran low, Rancon wept and applied all that remained—to let him sleep.
Rancon was devastated and hadn’t eaten for days when Chilcoat arrived. They talked quietly but Chilcoat had nothing to offer to console him. He knew that Rancon would eventually heal, but a big part of his life was gone, and he wasn’t yet ready to move on.
None of the remaining villagers wanted to join his venture, so Chilcoat struggled alone with his overloaded water cart. He thought of it as penance for his grieving friend as he looped the harness over his shoulders. The loss of a young one is far worse than this modest struggle with a rickety cart.
He needed to bring as much fresh water as he could, but every container made his task more difficult. It hadn’t taken long for snakes and other varmints to claim sections of the newly mown meadow, so frequent negotiations over territorial rights slowed his progress. The long green hallway seemed endless in the heat and humidity as the damaged plants bled a pungent haze into the meandering path. He considered waiting until night, but quickly discarded the thought. The local residents would make it too dangerous.
He dragged the cart steadily along the path pausing frequently to breathe deeply and fan the air under his cloak. He was about to resume his mission when he heard the unmistakable snarl of an angry cat. It was still at a safe distance but it changed his whole perspective. He had several hours of hard work ahead before he would emerge from the corridor and the presence of a predator at midday troubled him.
The next few minutes were torturously slow as he tried to gauge the location of the occasional outbursts. The brute must be involved in a skirmish with a fair-sized opponent, he thought, as the snarls grew more resolute over the ownership of some contended morsel. As long as he could still hear it, it was busy with the disputed meal and was of no danger to him. Still, the prospect of having a hungry cat lurking about put a new tone of urgency in his efforts. There was no place to flee. The narrow channel they had cut through the reeds was inflexible, and the soggy ground made maneuvering slow.
Why is a cat out this time of day? It must be desperate or threatened, and that isn’t good. It may do something reckless and I don’t want to be a part of it. The cart frequently bogged down in the moist stubble and grew heavier with his slowed progress. His forced breathing made it hard to hear the subtle changes in the cat’s location as the beast broke off its dispute and ventured closer to investigate the new noises. He stopped for a moment to ready his spear and remove his cloak so he could see. I’ll just have to suffer the sun until I can get past the cat. He felt oddly naked without the cover, but he needed to be on equal terms with the beast.
Grabbing the cart firmly, he started jogging quickly along the path of reeds. He would have to risk disturbing a snake and just hope that he could stay ahead of the beast. In his mind, he could see the end of the tunnel growing closer, but as he bounced along the uneven ground, the view ahead didn’t match his wishful delusion. He knew the cat was moving among the reeds to his left and redoubled his effort but quickly realized he was no match for its speed. He hastily shrugged off the harness and crashed the cart into the reeds between himself and the cat. His bow tangled in the harness webbing and left him with only his cloak and spear as he moved cautiously away from the hulk. The only thing he could hear was his own breathing, even the bugs seemed to be silent as he scanned the reeds for movement. At last, he spotted a slow displacement as the beast stalked him. He wrapped the cloak around his left arm and began waving it rhythmically in large sweeping circles. To this, he added a growling roar and a ready spearhead.
The cat replied in kind by snarling and stepping forward into the path. Its sleek golden form contrasted with the background of the reeds, but its cunning transition from light to shadow made it difficult to judge its approach. It skulked silently toward him shifting its head from side to side measuring its prey. Its eyes continually shifted between him and the cloak. As it got within range, Chilcoat lunged and tried to stab him with his spear. He was surprised that he was able to get in a good jab without any attempt by the cat to block his staff. It withdrew in surprise, but immediately returned to its hunting crouch shuffling its feet getting ready to spring. Chilcoat shouted and snapped the cloak several times then braced for the assault.
He dodged as the cat sprang and he thrust his spear again, the beast recovered from the small prick and spun to resume its attack. For the first time, he realized that the cat was very lean and was having a hard time seeing. Its eyes had the, now familiar, haze of too much sun. It had never occurred to him that the weather was just as hard on the animals as it was on him. The cat was having a hard time making a decent living so it was out hunting in the daylight. It was desperate, and Chilcoat was next on the list of possible prey.
The cat circled slowly slinking along the edge of the clearing; it crept behind the cart and out of sight. Chilcoat moved to try to get a better view and draped his cloak over his staff forming a flag. The cat leapt onto the cart and the load jiggled and sloshed under its weight. Its claws punctured a couple of bladders as it panicked, leaping quickly at him. The flag draped over its face and added to its confusion as Chilcoat dodged its attack. The cat screamed at the specter and tore madly at the cloth, shredding it along its length and catching Chilcoat on the forearm. His spear flew from his hands as the cat spun to re-attack. The thump of a well-placed arrow stunned the beast and a second bolt, moments later, killed him. Chilcoat stood panting in disbelief at the carcass at his feet.
Lannon swaggered down the corridor. “Sorry old man, I know you wanted to make that kill, but I owed him one.”
“Bless you boy, I thought I was a goner,” Chilcoat stammered.
They laughed at their relief; poking at the beast to be sure it was dead. It was a big male but had seen better days. He was skinny and had lesions on his back. He was desperately hunting strictly on instinct. “I think he’s better off now. He’s been a noble challenger but Vau has seen fit to leave him and spare me.”
Chilcoat retrieved his spear and started to assess the damage to his cart and cargo. He grabbed the two nearly empty skins and tossed one to Lannon while he held the other up to form a small fountain from which he drank. As the water dribbled down his face and chest, he rubbed it in and enjoyed the exhilaration of living another day. “What in Hell are you doing out here anyway? Don’t get me wrong, I owe you my life, but I am surprised to see you here.”
“Tarra... She had another dream and insisted that I had to take this cream to Randa.” Lannon pulled a pouch from his cloak.
Chilcoat took the pouch and stared at it for a moment. “Randa doesn’t need this now. He’s gone.”
“Well, it looks like you might.” Lannon poked at Chilcoat’s tender pink shoulder. “I’m sorry to hear about the kid. How’s Ran taking it?”
“He’ll live, I guess. What else can he do? He still blames himself, but he’ll learn to live with it, and in time, he’ll understand—I hope.” Chilcoat retrieved his shredded cloak and ripped a sleeve off to bind the gash in his arm.
They righted the cart, resettled the load, and considered the cat. “It’s your kill and you can bring it you want but it’ll add weight and we need to get moving.”
Lannon assessed the hide and elected to simply pull the fangs and leave it for the scavengers.
They each took an arm of the wagon yoke and set out at a fast trot. By early evening, they emerged from the passageway and basked in the dry air of the oak hills. They were exhausted and quickly ate their provisions before lying quietly watching the stars emerge. Chilcoat dressed his wound with another segment of his tattered cloak. He burned the blood-soaked rag and tied what remained of the garment into a vest that partly covered his shoulders.
Tossing fitfully from the sunburn and the wound, he thought of Tarra and her ointments. He wondered what sort of weed she had put in the cream Lannon had brought but decided it didn’t matter. He spread the salve liberally on his face and shoulders and in a soothing flush, he drifted off to sleep.
Near dawn, Lannon stirred the fire to life and shooed a dog away that was sniffing about the camp. The causeway echoed with cries and complaints from all sorts of varmints that were celebrating the loss of their overlord. He rolled the two fangs over inspecting their condition in the morning light then rubbed them in the sand to clean them. He would give one to each of his brothers and ask them to forget hunting the mother and her cubs. He had taken their father just as she had taken theirs. He wondered if he would ever see his brothers again.
By the end of the week, they had made their way back to camp. The two men told their tale of adventure to the crowd and Lannon proudly displayed the fangs to all who would listen. Chilcoat embraced his family and told Caran of the loss of Randa.
“You need to tell Tarra. She’ll be hurt. She’s had a hard time the past few days. Her dreams are troubled and she chants most of the day praying for him.”
“It’ll be hard.” Chilcoat dreaded the task.
Tarra approached from the tent. “What’ll be hard?”
“Randa is gone.” Chilcoat whispered as he reached out to pull her close. “I’m sorry. Ran was grateful for what you did for him. The boy slept only with your lotion, it made his last days peaceful, and allowed his parents the time to say goodbye.”
“When?” She pulled away from him indignantly.
“When did he pass? A spirit that I don’t know visited me. He sang to me and scattered leaves at my feet.”
“It must have been weeks ago, I guess. He was gone before I got there,” Chilcoat said, trying to comfort her.
“He was a brave little boy, and he was happy to be free from the pain.” She began a quiet song of mourning with Charona and Caran chanting softly in well-practiced harmony.
Chilcoat was always amazed at how the timid little company of women could rip his heart out with their songs of love and loss. He didn’t need such a release right now. He was tired and had served his penance. He just wanted to relax with a large bowl of smoking herb and perhaps some wine if he could find some.
“What have you done to your arm?” Caran grabbed him as he tried to leave.
Chilcoat dismissed her concern. “Just a little cat scratch, it’ll be OK in a couple of days.”
“Let me see.” She tore at the bandage he had cinched tightly around his arm.
“Ahh! Take it easy. It’s still a little sore.”
“Tarra, come and look at this. Is there something you can do for him?”
Tarra grabbed a lamp and peered at the swollen flesh. “Just a little cat scratch huh... You’re lucky you can still walk. Take your clothes off and lay down.”
“Now wait a minute. I just need a little rest, I’ll be fine.”
“Lay down or I’ll knock you down!” She put the lamp aside and grabbed what remained of his cloak ripping it off his shoulders. “Burn this.” She tossed the bloodstained garment to Lannon and began sorting through her medical supplies. “Caran, I’ll need your help. Get his clothes off and get plenty of clean cloth.”
Chilcoat wearily succumbed to their insistence and soon lay naked on his bed. Caran gave him a quick sponge bath and Tarra instructed her on how to cool damp cloths by waving them over his body before applying them. “Put one over his face, and wrap another around his neck. We have to keep his head cool.”
In the meantime, Tarra boiled a cloth and applied it to his swollen arm. “Ahh! That hurts.”
“Of course it hurts. Here chew on this.” She pulled a stubby little stick from her bag and shoved into his mouth.
He clamped his teeth onto the stump and grimaced. It tasted like dirt and released a bitter sap down his throat that made him wretch as he spit it out. “Is all this necessary? I just need to rest for a few minutes and I’ll be OK.”
Tarra grabbed the little stick and shoved it back in his mouth. “Quiet!” She mixed a batch of drawing-slave and applied it to the wound then wrapped it with a hot cloth. “Keep applying cool cloths to his head. I need a sling...”
Tarra sat for a moment thinking of what Papa would do. She looked to the stick figure standing by the door for several moments. Grabbing it roughly, she tore three of the shortest stick from the bundle, and tied them together to make a tent frame. She wedged the legs into the ground around Chilcoat’s arm and pulled his wrist up to hang from the structure.
“Ow! Take it easy.”
“Quiet. Here drink this.” She quickly prepared a muddy brown tea and poured it hastily down his throat. “Keep changing the cool cloths. I need to apply another hot one. We need to keep him cool.”
The tea soothed him, but the fever raged on as their vigil of hot and cold cloths continued. For the next few days, he slipped in and out of consciousness lying naked on the floor of their tent. Caran refused to sleep as she stroked his flesh and fanned him. Tarra solemnly changed his bandage and tried to get him to drink. It wasn’t going well and she had done everything she could think to do.
She searched her mind for something she had missed, something that her father would have done. She scanned the clutter of medical supplies scattered around the floor. Visions of her father toiling over injured people came to mind. Papa, is there something else I should do? Please guide me. We need him... I need him.
The words of one of his chants drifted across her mind as she collected some of the unused herbs and stuffed them back into the medicine pouch. Toma’s talking stick and the crude little stick Chilcoat had fashioned found their way into her hand. She considered them for a moment and returned Toma’s wand to the pouch. She began to chant the verse softly as she caressed the crude little wand. As the song finished, she scattered incense on the fire and spoke plainly to the smoke that rose through the vent. “Papa, please help us. Please speak with Vau... beg Her to whisper gently on this man. If he is the man foretold, Vau must spare him. She must...”
Chilcoat’s breathing became shallow and rapid as he convulsed and chocked on his vomit. He tossed his sweaty head back and forth trying to rid himself of the visions that fought for his mind. Tarra struggled with his arms trying to keep the sling in place and Caran sat back in terror that her husband would soon be taken from her.
He opened his eyes but couldn’t see. He tried to pull the shroud from his face but couldn’t move his arms. He could hear Tangar’s voice scolding him. “How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t hunt alone?”
It wasn’t the old man’s voice. He was still young and strong. “You know I’m busy with Mom. I don’t have time for your tricks and games right now. She’s brought you a baby sister and I have to be with her.”
“But Papa, I brought you a pig.” Chilcoat proudly announced that he had made his first kill. He was only seven at the time, and was practicing with his bow, when the beast appeared near the practice range. He did his best to remember all of the things his dad had taught him as he snuck up on it. He let fly with his first shot and was shocked that the beast dropped to its knees and fell over. Papa will be so proud... I killed a pig and I’ll be a hero at the evening meal.
“How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t hunt alone? That pig has a family. You’re lucky the whole passel didn’t eat you.”
“But Papa, it was alone. There weren’t any others.”
“That’s what I said. He was alone and he died. Aren’t you smarter than a pig? If you walk this world alone, you’ll die, and no one will know, no one will care.”
Chilcoat was crushed. My real dad would’ve been proud. My real dad would’ve been with me practicing, not doing women’s work. Besides, she’s not my real mom; she’s not my real sister...
Tangar chanted quietly welcoming his daughter to the world. The song praised the glory of Vau and the wonders She provides. He muttered softly as he cradled the child. “Could I dare think that this child fulfills the sacred scrolls? Is Tarra the ‘Keeper’ and this boy the ‘Man Foretold?’ Should I wish such a thing on this precious gift?” He mocked the old women that had cursed the child with doom saying. “Tarann is too old. The child will be a burden on us all. She should know better than to bring such a child into the world.”
Tangar’s ghost spoke clearly, as his form began to dissolve. “Old women be damned. The scrolls speak only the truth. If I’ve been blessed with this burden... I accept it gladly. ’YodHeaVau please whisper ever gently on their souls’.”
The shroud on Chilcoat’s eyes lifted slowly. He could see the ghost of Tangar drifting silently over him. The ghost writhed and twisted in the wind as it sought freedom through the vent. Caran mopped his brow and prepared yet another cool cloth. “Wait. I’m OK I just need a little rest.”
The shroud on his eyes lifted slowly. He could see the ghost of Tangar drifting silently over him. The ghost writhed and twisted in the wind as it sought freedom through the vent. Caran mopped his brow and prepared yet another cool cloth. “Wait. I’m OK I just need a little rest.”A smile spread across her face. It had been three days since the fever claimed his mind. He had tossed and turned mumbling incoherently and thrashing about trying to free his hand from the restraint. “Tarra, Tarra... He’s awake.” She called across the tent.
“Really, awake or just trying to get free?” Tarra sat up wearily across the room and looked bleary eyed at him.
“No, really awake. I think. He says he’s OK”
“I’ve heard that before.” Tarra stirred from her bed and knelt next to him. “Let’s see if you know what you’re talking about.” She unwrapped the cloth around his injured arm and poked at the puffy flesh. “Hmm... yes, you might be right. How do you feel?”
Chilcoat looked irritated at all of the fuss. “I’m fine, if you’ll let me out of this contraption.” He tugged at the sling.
“OK, but you’ll be sorry.” Tarra unhooked the sling and carefully lowered his arm to lie beside him.
“Ahh! It’s throbbing like hell.”
Tarra smoothed some yellow salve along the scab that had formed. “Sit up and see if you can drink something.”
“Drink what? Don’t tell me you have more of that devil’s brew.”
“That devil’s brew has saved your life.” Caran grabbed him and rocked him lovingly. “You’ve been asleep for three days with fever. Tarra saved you. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
“Three days! No. You drugged me with that tea just last night. I remember... You gave me some tea and started screwing with my hand. Which, by the way, still hurts like hell.”
“Poor baby...” Tarra began cleaning up the mess.
“I’m sorry dear, but it’s true. You’ve been out for three days with Tarra tending you.”
“With your wife tending you.” Tarra timidly smiled at Caran.“You almost died... Your fever made you crazy and you almost died. You almost died...” Caran pulled him close and squeezed until he finally returned the gesture.