Fiction – “Keeli’s Ordeal” by Scott H Andrews
The dugout canoe’s bow scraped to a halt on the muddy lakeshore, and Keeli peered around the rowers at the wooded hills where he would take his Ordeal—the hills where he would fell a beast to provide for his tribe, and return to his village a man.
Teudo Wise-Voice stepped from the bow, shaking his rattle filled with spikefish fangs. The hollow clatter made Keeli’s chest tense. Only three of this summer’s Ordeal boys still waited to be sent into the forest, and he was next.
His hands trembled as he reached for the rim of the canoe. His friend Deebu gave him an encouraging nod, and Keeli returned it. Then he vaulted into the shallows.
He felt the eyes of fifteen men track him as he waded up the shore alongside the canoe. He passed his father sitting third on the right side, paddle braced across his knees. His father’s jaw twitched, as though fighting back a final word of advice. Keeli stared at the water as he crossed to the bow, so he wouldn’t tempt his father to break the silence.
Teudo Wise-Voice gave the rattle one last shake, then folded his arms. His headdress, made from the pelt and skull of a horned pouncer, cast his brow in shadow.
“Keeli, last son of Gaafi,” Teudo said. “Are you ready to become a Full Voice of this tribe?”
“Yes,” Keeli said. His own voice sounded tiny over the waters.
Teudo reached his hands toward the hills. “Soil Mother, share your bounty with this boy, that he may take of it to feed his village. That he may return to us by the next dusk, a Full Voice of the tribe.”
Keeli’s knees quivered. He’d known all his life that the night of his Ordeal would come. But now he finally stood alone on the farthest shore of the lake, without food or water or stone knife. The dusk breeze prickled across his back.
Teudo clapped Keeli on the right shoulder, then sat down in the canoe. Maaro First-Voice barked an order, and the rowers pushed off the shore. Keeli’s father’s eyes glistened in the twilight. He did not miss a single paddle stroke, even though the poultice had slipped off the gash on his thigh again.
Keeli remembered his father pulling him aside in the village that morning, limping to catch up with him. “Make sure you cut your spear from greenwood, not from deadfall.”
“I don’t think I’ll need a spear,” Keeli said. “I’m going to tie a snare—a special kind of snare.”
“Cut a spear too, in case your snare fails. Perhaps a club as well. Just to be certain.”
“It won’t fail. I’ll bring back a striped bounder—a big one.”
Then his father’s face hazed over, like a shallow pool clouded by a darting fish. He must be thinking of Gaato again. Keeli’s older brother had wanted to fell a bounder on his own Ordeal, one big enough to earn him a place with the Hunters of the tribe. But he had not lived to take his Ordeal.
Keeli reached up and clasped his father’s shoulder. “Tomorrow night, you’ll eat from a beast I’ve felled myself. The first of many.”
His father swept Keeli to his chest in a crushing hug. Then he limped away to his canoe. For the rest of the day, Keeli had made certain not to speak of striped bounders in front of his father again.
Now he took a deep breath and stepped alone into the forest. Gnarled strands of knuckle-vine dangled from the trees, wriggling in the breeze. Damp salt-wood leaves sank under the press of his feet. The aroma of the forest pooled around him, alive with the scents of different vines and stalks and leaves.
But none of the other Ordeal boys would waste daylight stopping to seek out interesting plants—even his friend Deebu never seemed to notice the unique scents that Keeli pointed out. The sunset was already waning over his shoulder, so Keeli hurried deeper into the trees.
Teudo Wise-Voice had led the Ordeal boys on many walks through the forest, showing them where all the beasts lived and what they ate. Ever since, Keeli had quit seeking out unusual leaves and instead started planning how he would catch a striped bounder. He wasn’t as strong or as fast as his brother had been. He couldn’t jump a bounder or bring one down with a spear. But he could lower a snare out of a tree and loop it around a bounder’s head.
He had practiced his special tree-snare until he could tie it by moonlight. Now he only needed to find the right spot to set it. He would bring the tribe a grand feast and give his father a son among the Hunters.
Keeli crept through the wooded hills. He’d never been this far from the village, even on the extra walks he’d asked Teudo Wise-Voice to lead him on.
Thick sprigs of vigil root sprouted in the dank shade under the trees. Keeli had asked his mother about the slivers of root she and his older sisters chewed when they waited up all night with a ripened mother, and she had showed him the droopy spear-point leaves. If that root helped them wait up all night, it would also help Keeli stay awake until dawn. He pulled loose several sprigs and chewed on one of the spicy roots as he walked.
He crossed a dry streambed, and stones grated under his weight—smooth, flat, and knobfruit-sized. Perfect for skipping on the surface of the lake, as he and his friend Deebu did every evening. He stooped to grab a handful.
No—skipping stones was for boys. Tomorrow he and Deebu would be men, sitting around the Legend Fire to hear the bloody tales of the Sky Father that were not told to children. He stood and walked on.
He had learned how to skip stones from his brother Gaato—three summers ago, barely a moon before his brother’s spirit left. Some foul essence of the Sky Father got inside Gaato’s hand just days before he was to take his own Ordeal. Keeli’s mother and sisters changed the poultices while Teudo Wise-Voice steeped piles of broad-stalk leaves for new ones, but the essence was too strong. Gaato’s arm swelled so fat that it didn’t look like an arm anymore. The stench filled the hut—it smelled like the muck at the bottom of the lake, only worse. Two mornings later, Gaato’s spirit seeped into the ground to join the Soil Mother. After that, Keeli’s father had sat alone at night for a whole season. And Keeli could not bring himself to skip stones again for a long, long time.
He paced down a slope covered with patches of mother’s braid to a rocky outcrop that cut through the woods. At the bole of a forked tree, a brook burbled over mossy stones into a pool. The bounders moved through these hills at night, stopping to drink at pools like this one. Keeli would set his snare here.
He fashioned it from some green slither-vines, the strongest kind. He wriggled under a thicket of thorn’s nest, to the center where the ripest berries hung, and plucked a handful. After he crushed them to loosen their scent, he stuffed them in between the vines of his snare. Then he climbed into the fork of the tree.
The last daylight drained from the sky as Keeli nibbled on his vigil root, and the darkening forest rang with so many different little sounds that they all blended together. Stump diggers barked and hoppers croaked. Glowbats chirped as they fluttered above the trees, their bellies pulsing with light. And a whiptail hissed as it waddled across the ground.
Surely a bounder would come. Surely he wouldn’t have to stumble back to the village with a stump digger or a puny spotted hopper. One of the other boys would certainly fell a bounder, so anything smaller would only earn Keeli a place as a Fish-Netter or a Flock-Herder. His father deserved better.
Movement flickered in the trees along the foot of the outcrop. A bounder halted, its ears twitching. The stripes down its flank blended with the slivers of moonlight now filtering through the trees. Three long antlers arced back over its neck.
A buck! An old one, too. Keeli’s spirit leaped with glee inside his chest. The Soil Mother was smiling on him. If he could bring down this buck, he might earn a place with the First Hunter, where he would follow and learn and one day become First Hunter himself. His father would weep with joy.
But he had to stay calm. His breath rumbled like storm winds in his own ears. He held his head steady and followed the bounder with his eyes, as it stepped down the bank to the pool. It paused and sniffed, stretching toward the scent of berries in Keeli’s snare.
A rounded shadow slunk along the base of the outcrop. The bounder froze. What was this?
A sleek shape sprang from the darkness and fell upon the bounder’s flank. Moonlight flashed over black fur and two squat horns, just like Teudo Wise-Voice’s headdress.
A horned pouncer! Keeli held his breath.
The pouncer twisted to bring its prey down. But the old bounder whipped its head back and stabbed its antlers into the pouncer’s shoulder. The pouncer spat and flinched away.
The bounder staggered across the ground, its forelegs splayed at a sickening angle. Its spirit was draining away. The pouncer loped after it. The bounder crouched at the foot of the outcrop and leaped high onto a narrow ledge. There, it collapsed against the rock.
The pouncer reared and pawed at the rock face, but it couldn’t reach the ledge. It licked a trail of blood from the stones. It hopped down on all fours, paced at the foot of the outcrop, then reared again.
Keeli clung to the tree. He’d been too prideful, already seeing himself as First Hunter. He’d offended the Soil Mother and she’d sent the pouncer to show him his place. He couldn’t take that bounder back to the village because he hadn’t felled it himself. And even a grown man with a blowgun couldn’t always bring down a horned pouncer. He would have to wait until the pouncer slinked off, then find a whiptail or a stump digger. If the pouncer hadn’t scared them all away.
The pouncer swung away from the outcrop. It sniffed the air, then padded toward Keeli’s tree.
Keeli froze. Could it smell him?
The pouncer sprang to the bole of the tree and slashed at the fork.
Keeli clambered up one of the trunks, the bark slick against his feet. The pouncer swatted again, its claws raking the spot where he’d crouched a heartbeat before.
The trunk swayed under his weight. Pouncers could climb trees, Teudo had said, so Keeli shinnied higher. The branches above him drooped toward the top of the outcrop.
The pouncer lowered its head and planted its horns against the tree. The trunk shook under Keeli’s grip.
The pouncer shoved again, and Keeli cried out. Any higher and this narrow trunk would snap under his weight. The tree shook again, and a groan sounded deep inside the fork.
Keeli scrambled up, toward the branches dangling into the thickets on the outcrop. The fork split behind him with a crack like thunder. The branch went weightless in his grasp.
He crashed into the thickets. Thorns raked his back. The pouncer hopped onto the fallen trunk and padded up after him.
Keeli ran through the thickets on top of the outcrop. He pushed past dangling branches. He stumbled over hidden holes. The pouncer thrashed into the thickets behind him. The outcrop suddenly ended above a moonlit clearing. On the far side, a tangle of vines covered a huge, squat shape like a giant hollow tree as wide as a hut. At the foot of the trunk, the vines hung over a narrow hole.Keeli scrambled down and raced across the clearing. The pouncer tore through the branches behind him. He dove toward the hole. He ripped vines away and crawled into blackness.
The pouncer’s breath fumed hot at his heels. Agony flared down Keeli’s right calf. He dragged himself forward.
Then the ground disappeared out from under him, and he fell through empty air. His scream choked in his throat as he slammed into damp leaves.
Keeli’s right leg throbbed. He rolled over in the shadows, moist dirt pressing against his palms.
Wads of skin hung from deep furrows down his calf. Salt-wood leaves stuck in the sheet of blood covering his ankle. He couldn’t let the Sky Father’s foul essences get inside his body, or he would swell up like Gaato had. He squeezed the wound shut, and a burst of pain drove the breath from his chest.
Pale light glistened on the blood drying between his fingers. The moon hung directly above him in the sky, shining down inside the hollow trunk of this massive tree. Only it wasn’t a tree. The inside was square, and the walls were made of stones that were flat on all sides. It was a very tall stone hut, with no roof
Who would build a hut so tall they couldn’t reach the top without a rope? And how many streambeds had they dug through to find so many stones flat on all sides?
Keeli lurched to his feet. The new, squishy crust on his leg held, but fresh blood welled beneath it. He had to bind his wound, or his spirit might drain out with the blood.
But how? The stone walls of the hut were bare, except for a doorway filled with dirt and an alcove stacked with clay jars. Each of the jars was as big as a soil melon—far larger than the jars Keeli’s sisters made. Maybe they held braided rope, or strips of hide?
No, they were too heavy for that. Their necks were sealed with waxy plugs, and the plugs wouldn’t budge. Keeli sagged against the wall.
What about vines? There’d been slither-vines around the hole he’d crawled through. But where was that? A breeze stirred above his head, and torn vines dangled from a slit high up in the wall.
Of course—he’d fallen. That was why the empty roof looked so far away.
So this hut had a root cellar under the floor, just like his family’s hut in the village. But the floor was gone, rotted away so long ago that even the last lumps of mushy wood had vanished. Keeli ran his hand along the smooth stone. This hut was very old indeed.
His fingers slid into a gap. Little square niches had been left in the wall, every few arm’s lengths. This one had specks of wood in it, that might have landed there when the floor fell. Keeli hooked his hands into a pair of the niches and hauled himself off the floor. He reached for the next two and pulled himself higher. Finally, he heaved his chin up above the slit where he’d crawled in. The vines brushed his head, and he reached out to grab one.
Rank breath puffed against his face. The pouncer! Keeli jerked back just as a huge black paw swiped at his head.
He fell again, and the impact ripped open the crust on his wound. Pain seized his calf.
The pouncer’s head shoved through the slit. Yellow eyes glared down. Moonlight glinted off short white horns.
Keeli scurried backwards. His fingers scrabbled over a small stone in the dirt, the perfect size for skipping on the lake. He wrenched it free and threw it.
The stone glanced off the pouncer’s jaw. The beast halted, blinking. Then it leaned into the hut, eyeing the walls for a way down.
Keeli scraped at the dirt for every stone he could find and threw them all at the pouncer’s head. The beast spat. It snapped its jaws, as though trying to bite the stones out of the air. Finally, it wriggled back through the slit.
Keeli held his wound closed again until the blood stopped. Tears welled in his eyes, but he bit his tongue. Men did not cry, and at the next dusk he would become a man.
But only if he could get back to the village without the pouncer chasing him down. He could hardly walk—how would he ever manage that?
For now, he needed more stones in case the pouncer came back. He clawed at the dirt until he’d dug up a handful of them, chilly and damp in his palm. Then he crawled to the wall across from the slit. His head felt heavy, like a basket of water lolling on his shoulders. He had to stay awake, but he’d lost his sprigs of vigil root.
Pebbles crunched, high above. A lean shadow crouched on the top of one wall, blotting out the moonlight.
Keeli’s breath froze. How had the pouncer leaped all the way up there? Why was it still chasing him? What had he done to offend the Soil Mother so deeply?
No—what had his father done. The Soil Mother had already claimed his father’s older son, and now she was hunting the younger one too. Keeli’s father didn’t deserve that. He was the strongest of all the Rowers. He carved the smoothest canoes and the lightest paddles. He deserved to see his only living son become a Full Voice in the tribe.
Keeli staggered to his feet. “You can’t take my father’s last son!”
The pouncer’s head tilted in a quizzical stare.
“I won’t let you!” Keeli threw a stone, but it spun low. The pouncer paced along the tops of the walls, circling him from high above.
Then it leaned down the inside of the hut. Keeli’s spirit shriveled in his stomach. Could the beast jump down that far?
He threw several stones, and the pouncer reared back up. Then it leaned down again. He showered it with more stones. It snarled and loped onto the top of the next wall.
Keeli’s left hand felt light—he’d already thrown most of his stones. He saved the rest, only throwing them when the pouncer leaned down the wall. He tried to dig up more while it circled, but whenever he stooped, it leaned down and he had to drive it back again.
Then the pouncer quit pacing. It eased its forepaws down the wall and didn’t pull back, even when Keeli hit it in the nose.
He was down to his last stone. He aimed at the pouncer’s head, right between the horns. But the stone only grazed its shoulder.
The pouncer craned its head, as though measuring the jump. Keeli shrank into the alcove.
The clay jars! He grabbed one and smashed it against the wall. The clay didn’t shatter into bits like he’d hoped—the jar was full of sticky mud. But the neck split into several stone-sized chunks.
He snatched them up and whipped one at the pouncer. It missed low. He threw another, harder. The clay slipped from his raw fingers and sailed over the pouncer’s head.
Keeli’s stomach sank. Only one chunk left. The other pieces were too big to throw, but maybe he could break one over the pouncer’s head after the beast landed in front of him.
The pouncer edged down the wall. Its tail arced behind it as it balanced for the jump. Keeli aimed the last chunk at the pouncer’s back and threw it as hard as he could.
That one sailed high too, just high enough to smack across the pouncer’s hindquarters. The beast yelped and jerked back up onto the wall. Claws skittered on stone. The pouncer’s tail whipped from side to side as it lost its balance and fell.
It crashed to the ground outside, shaking dust from the inner walls of the hut. Keeli heard a single bark of pain. Then the forest fell silent.
He collapsed against the base of the wall. The wound on his calf had split open again, so he pressed it shut. Pain surged up his leg.
What place in the tribe would he earn if he was too weak to bring down anything? And how deeply would that sting his father. In all the summers Keeli could remember, no boy had ever returned from an Ordeal with nothing. He couldn’t hold back a few tears.
The pile of mud from the broken jar glistened in the moonlight. It had a strangely bright smell that made Keeli’s nose itch—like needle-tree sap, only stronger. He’d gotten some on his left hand, and his two smallest fingers had stuck together.
Maybe the mud would hold his wound together, too. Keeli scooped up a handful and spread it on his calf. It tingled against his skin. Blood dribbled out from underneath it, but the mud held.
He broke one of the larger clay pieces into shards and gathered them at his side, in case the pouncer came back. At the top of the hut, the moon hung just above the far wall. Once the sun rose, he’d have to find a way to bring down some beast. If he could walk without his leg tearing open. If there still were any beasts nearby that the pouncer hadn’t scared away. If the pouncer still wasn’t stalking him.
Keeli shivered. But he’d sooner face the pouncer again than see the shame in his father’s eyes if he returned to the village with nothing.
A flock of squawkers woke Keeli as they fluttered across the bright sky above the open stone hut. It was already midday, and he had to get back to the village by dusk.
He climbed to his feet. The strange mud had hardened over his wound like a scab, only thicker and more supple. He bent his knee, and the mud didn’t even crack.
His father could use some of this mud in place of the poultice that was always sliding off his thigh. And Keeli would need more once the lake washed his away, so he wouldn’t bleed into the water and attract spikefish. He gathered several salt-wood leaves and made two packets of the mud.
Then he stepped to the wall below the slit and climbed up the niches. His leg ached whenever he put weight on it, but he bit his tongue and swung to another niche as quick as he could.
Sunlight filtered into the clearing outside the hut. No sign of the pouncer, and no whiff of its breath. Keeli broke a stick from a dead stringleaf limb and leaned on it as he hobbled through the woods.
He had to stop at the foot of every slope. His leg stiffened so tightly that he couldn’t bend his ankle, so he rested standing on one foot.
Finally he topped the last rise above the lakeshore. Across the rippling waters, strands of distant hearth smoke rose from the village. The Ordeal Feast. And he still hadn’t felled a beast to bring back to the tribe.
What was left? The bounders didn’t run during the day. And he wouldn’t stumble across one sleeping nearby, not with the pouncer’s scent still fresh. He peered into the trees for a glowbat or a limb swinger. He poked through the patches of mother’s braid for a stump digger or a ringed slitherer. He found a few tracks, but they looked a day old at the least.
Keeli slumped against his walking stick. There was nothing left in these woods that the sun or the pouncer hadn’t driven away.
He shuffled down to the lake and slipped into the water. He spotted a fallen log dangling from the bank, so he dragged it into the shallows. As he climbed on top of it, water dribbled off the crust on his leg. The mud hadn’t washed away, even in the lake. Some water soaked through into his wound, and the strange mud stirred with warmth.
Keeli steered his log along the shore. Only one thing lived among the rushes that he could catch with his bare hands—a spotted hopper. In the reeds, he found several squatting on a water-blossom pad. He eased out his hand and snatched one up, as smoothly as he’d done as a little boy.
He’d tried for a grand beast, but the Soil Mother had showed him his true place. A hopper would earn him a spot as a Flock-Herder or perhaps only a Furrow-Digger.
He fought the sadness rising in his throat. His father wouldn’t beam from ear to ear, or brag to the other rowers about the great beast his son had felled. But he would see his last son become a Full Voice in the tribe. Keeli could accept that, if his father could too.
The chants of the Ordeal Feast echoed across the lake as Keeli neared the shore. Judging from the smoky aroma of roasting meat, at least one boy had felled a bounder, maybe even two. Keeli’s stomach croaked as loud as a hopper.
He limped up the shore into the village. Laughs and shouts rang from the feast circle, which was packed with fathers and mothers and daughters and sons. All the other Ordeal boys had returned. Keeli’s friend Deebu stood at the high end of the feast hearth, behind only Scaano, the First-Voice’s son. Deebu must have felled the second bounder, and Keeli was proud for him. He would serve the village well as a Hunter. The four other boys had brought back large stump diggers and even a bull whiptail.
Someone called out, and the crowd fell silent. Keeli stepped into the feast circle and set his hopper on the hearth. Whispers hissed through the crowd.
Teudo Wise-Voice rushed forward and kneeled at Keeli’s side, studying his leg. “Are you hurt?”
Keeli peered at Teudo’s headdress. That pouncer had far smaller horns than the one that had chased him. “A pouncer clawed me, but I hid in an old stone hut.”
Where were his father and his mother and his sisters? They pushed through the crowd.
Teudo sniffed the mud on Keeli’s wound. “What’s this?”
Keeli told them. “Father, I brought some for you, to keep your gash covered when you row.”
“Thank you, son.” Keeli’s father patted him on the shoulder. His eyes were glistening again, but other than that he seemed to be hiding his shame well. Keeli’s mother bent down and hugged him, her braids swishing against his shoulders. His sisters picked leaves out of his hair.
Teudo rubbed the mud between his fingers. “It feels warm.”
“That didn’t happen until it got wet, in the lake.” Keeli shifted his leg, and the edge of the mud started to peel away.
Teudo gaped at Keeli’s skin, beneath the mud. Then he gripped the crust and peeled it back. Tiny stings pricked Keeli’s leg as hairs tore away.
His wound had grown shut. Pink scars stretched over the long furrows, sealing his blood below the skin. It looked like a wound from a whole moon ago, not the day before. His leg still ached, but this strange mud had healed his wound in half a day.
The festival crowd hushed. Maaro First-Voice and all the hunters stared at Keeli’s leg. Other villagers craned around them for a glimpse.
Teudo stood. “Take us where you found this.”
“Now?” Keeli asked. “During the feast?”
“Yes,” Maaro First-Voice said.
A line of canoes streamed across the lake, packed with rowers and hunters. Keeli sat beside Teudo Wise-Voice in the bow of the first one, telling him everything that had happened. Teudo asked several questions, then fell silent.
Keeli’s stomach clenched tighter with every paddle stroke. He’d never heard of an Ordeal Feast cut short. And no Full Voice had called him to a place in the tribe. Hadn’t he earned one? His father rowed in one of the trailing canoes, head level as he dug his paddle through the water. Was he ashamed? Keeli couldn’t tell.
The canoes landed on the far shore. Maaro First-Voice lined up rowers carrying empty baskets and hunters with blowguns and spears. Then he waved Keeli ahead. “Lead the way.”
Keeli hobbled into the trees. The forest seemed far smaller with half the tribe tromping behind him than it had the night before. His friend Deebu walked with the hunters, who had called him to serve with them. Keeli was the only one who hadn’t been called.
He led them through the forest to the rocky outcrop. The forked tree’s exposed core was rotten—no wonder it had split under his weight. Claw marks scored the fallen trunk where the pouncer had chased him. Maaro First-Voice measured the width of the marks with his hand, and murmurs rippled through the tribesmen.
The First Hunter called from the ledge below the outcrop. The bounder’s spirit had left its body there. The hunters pulled the carcass down. It was bigger than the one Deebu had brought back, but Keeli felt no regret. The Soil Mother hadn’t meant for him to fell it.
He led the tribesmen along the base of the outcrop to the clearing. The slither-vines covered the stone hut so thickly that it took him a moment to spot it.
Teudo Wise-Voice stepped into the undergrowth beside the hut. He sniffed the vines and lifted a patch of leaves spotted with blood. “You wounded the pouncer?”
“I hit it with a few stones,” Keeli said. “But I didn’t think any of them pierced its hide.”
“Then it must have taken a wound when it fell,” Teudo said. “It landed here and crawled into the forest.” He called the First Hunter forward and sent a group of men to track it.
Keeli brushed the vines away from the slit in the wall. “I found the mud in there. Be careful, the floor is low.”
Teudo examined the worn stone. Then he stepped back and yanked the vines down. They ripped away from flat walls as smooth as the ones Keeli had seen inside.
“One of the ancient stone trees?” Maaro First-Voice asked.
“It must be,” Teudo said. “It fits the tales.”
“Tales of what?” Keeli asked.
“The Forsaken Tribes,” Teudo said. “They left the forest a thousand seasons ago to live in the plains. They built great stone huts as big as a hill. Darts and spears bounced off the shells they wore. The Wise-Voice when I was your age spoke of stone trees like this one, that they built to watch the forest.”
A thousand seasons? Keeli couldn’t even count that high. “What happened to them?”
“Without the Soil Mother’s bounty, they grew weak, and the Sky Father snuffed them out. I can tell that tale at the Legend Fire tonight.”
Teudo sent the two skinniest rowers crawling through the slit into the hut. They lifted the clay jars out, and Keeli’s father stacked them in the clearing. Teudo moved from one to the next, rubbing the waxy plug that sealed each jar.
Keeli stooped beside the basket containing the jar he had smashed. The fresh mud smelled different than it had after he’d gotten it wet in the lake. He sniffed it again and tasted a tiny bit on the tip of his tongue.
Teudo pried out one of the waxy plugs, but it crumbled in his hands. “The seals on most of these have cracked and the mud inside is hard as a stone. Only three jars are still fresh.”
Maaro First-Voice frowned. “Those won’t last long.”
“Snap-pod seeds,” Keeli said. “It smells like needle-tree sap, but it tastes just barely of snap-pod seeds. When it got wet, for a moment it smelled of knobfruit.”
Teudo sniffed at a finger-tip of the mud. “Burnt snap-pod seeds. I suspect they roasted them.”
“So if you roast some snap-pods, and boil them in needle-tree sap….”
“Quite possibly, Keeli. Perhaps we could learn to make our own.”
The hunters trudged back into the clearing and dumped a rumpled carcass on the ground. A hush fell over the tribesmen.
Keeli eased toward the pouncer, even though its spirit had clearly left its body. Its back was twisted—it had broken its hindquarters in the fall. It didn’t look so sleek up close in the daylight. Welts covered its head, from Keeli’s stones.
The First Hunter lifted the pouncer’s head and peeled its black jowls away from huge, yellowed teeth as long as Keeli’s fingers. “Even some Full Voices wouldn’t have stood their ground against this beast, especially without a blowgun or spear. You did very well.”
The praise made Keeli’s face warm. But the First Hunter could not call him to a place in the tribe—the pouncer had been killed by the fall, not by Keeli’s stones. He shuffled out of the hunters’ way. His place was not with them.
But his father did not seem to mind. He was pointing out the pouncer’s welts to the other rowers, and they were keeping a tally. He stepped away from them and stood at Keeli’s side, the mud Keeli had brought him covering the gash on his thigh.
“You’re not sad?” Keeli asked. “That I won’t be a Hunter?”
His father looped a thick arm around Keeli’s shoulders. “No, my son. The Soil Mother must want you to serve the tribe another way.”
“But no one has called me to a place.”
“The feast has not ended yet. Some Full Voice will know how you can best help the tribe, and he will call you to a place. Whatever it is, I know you will serve well.”
Keeli hugged his father’s arm. “Thank you, Father.”
His father squeezed Keeli’s shoulder, then joined the other rowers in loading the clay jars into baskets. Many of them had dabs of the mud on their arms or legs—Maaro First-Voice had let them use some from the jar Keeli had smashed, so it wouldn’t dry out and go to waste. Several of the hunters had taken bits as well, and even Maaro had smeared some across a scrape on his hand.
So Keeli had brought the tribe something grand on his Ordeal after all—this mud. If it could seal a pouncer slash, it could cure cuts and burns too. And maybe even arms swollen so fat they didn’t look like arms anymore, so no one else would have to feel that icy shiver as their brother’s spirit seeped into the ground. Or their son’s.
It wasn’t a huge beast that would feed several families and earn him a high place in the tribe, but it would help many people. If Teudo could learn to make more, it might help everyone in the village. No matter what place Keeli’s hopper might earn him, he could always say that he brought this mud to the tribe.
As the rowers finished loading the baskets, Teudo Wise-Voice took Keeli aside. “Once we return to the village, the Ordeal Feast will continue. I would like to call you to a place, Keeli. We could learn together how to make this healing mud. I could teach you everything of the forest that the Soil Mother has shared with me. And when I am old, you would become the next Wise Voice.”
A place in the tribe! But Keeli wasn’t certain he deserved this place. “Anyone could have found that mud. If they had taken a wound, they might have tried using the mud to hold it shut, and they would have learned of its gift the same way I did.”
“Perhaps, Keeli. But not anyone would have been clever enough to elude a pouncer, or to survive such a grave wound. Few would have noticed how the mud smelled, let alone so precisely that they could name what is in it. And very few indeed would have brought some of it back to the village just to help someone else.”
Wise Voice—it did seem to fit. Keeli wasn’t fast or strong, but he was clever. The Soil Mother must have been testing him, to see if he was worthy not only to find the mud, but also to discover its gift. So she wanted him to be Wise Voice someday too.
“Thank you,” Keeli said. “I would like to be Wise Voice—once you think I have learned enough.”
“You will serve the tribe well, I’m certain of it,” Teudo said. “I will show you how to make a headdress from this very pouncer. After you wear it, you can pass it on to the Wise Voice who follows you, and he to the one who follows him.”
“I will,” Keeli said. The pouncer’s welts made it look ragged, but he would be proud to wear that pelt.
Teudo approached the rowers. “Take care with this pouncer. The next Wise Voice will need the pelt for his headdress.”
Keeli’s father spun around. A smile rippled across his face, wider than Keeli remembered seeing on him in many seasons. The other rowers clapped him on the shoulders, and several of them nodded in Keeli’s direction.
Keeli’s spirit swelled inside his chest. They were nodding at him. And his father was proud.
“Let us return to the feast,” Maaro First-Voice called. The hunters shouldered the striped bounder, and the rowers lifted the baskets of mud.
Keeli’s father hooked his arms under the huge pouncer carcass and lifted it across his back. His knees creaked as he rose to his feet. Several of the other rowers rushed to help, but he waved them away.
With Teudo Wise-Voice on one side of him and his father on the other, Keeli walked with his new fellow tribesmen back to the lake.
About the Author
Scott H Andrews lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales and Space and Time, and he is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the SFWA pro-rate fantasy e-zine Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Visit his website at www.scotthandrews.com.