Weekend Fiction: Tribe A
To understand this is to achieve the impossible. To accept that is to acknowledge the limitations of human thought and imagination. We are beasts who have mastered worlds and space but our dominion is finite, even petty. Words, which both govern and elevate us, are also tyrants' prisons spanning beyond fantasy but with walls stronger than any fortress. They are the only language we speak but they are not the only language there is. Without them we are not what we are but with them we can only be what we are. We are all-consuming but constrained. Despite everything, our only significance is our lack of it. Great cities are only dust; in the end we are all dead. The best we can do is give poor translation to what we can never comprehend.
This is the alien. So it does not matter who this is, except that you know them. It matters less where this is, except that you do not know it.
The land where they live is vast with a sweltering heat. It has that desolate, bleak beauty of nature unspoiled by civilised capriciousness. The flat plains of grey green and brown-hued rich grass stretch out mile after mile as far as any eye can see under an intense blue sky. There is stark wilderness where life struggles in the oppressive heat, their graveyard of souls they have lost subject to marauding outlaws and scavengers. Other parts are lush bucolic growth thick with overflowing vegetation and dense forests fed by the serpentine river which rushes down through the terrain encouraging their bounty.
To them it is their land, although borders and territories only exist in the loosest sense. They have never been to war to protect it nor have they ever fought to extend it. They have not spent their vast resources stockpiling weapons to defend themselves. The only aggression they understand is defensive to the individual and by extension to the collective. There is not peace because they do not know war. It is a world that is free from good because they do not understand morality. God does not exist nor has He ever done. Worship is an unknown concept. There is exclusively existence. They do not have a name for it. They have not even considered that they ought to give it a name. It is not absurd because they barely even recognise the concept.
When it seems as if the earth can bear no more, the long days grow shorter and cooler; the failing heat of the day gives way to a great nightly chill. The wind, once dusty, coldly shakes against tree branches; leaves curl in its winds. What was once still now moves. Soon the rains will come - at first merely a drop against a leaf - to dash against the hard, dry earth of the fallow season. The river will swell until it overflows, covering huge tracts of once dry ground. Day after day they will see their red skies fill with blue clouds and downpour consume them. Their only solace comes from their moon which strides across the sky.
And so it begins.
Every year the tribe slowly gathers. They do so in the same place that they have done unto the ages: generation after generation, parent then child, collected here. Over several days, maybe longer, from miles apart alone and in small groups they come. Mothers gather their children and families to make their way; the elderly, painfully with creaking bone, make their way; the young, who are unshackled by any commitments except mythology, make their way. They gather for congress, first in only small numbers but then in hundreds and finally thousands. The steppe, not long before bereft of conspicuous life, becomes a thriving hub of activity. What is at first aimless, even accidental, assumes a beating beauty, a fine and trembling design: it courses with rhythmic activity like currents of blood running through veins. It is as if they are parading evidence of a greater life.
Although no show, this dazzling and startling harmony does not occur by chance but because their consciousness exists on two, maybe more, levels: the individual and the collective. The first is limited, almost instinctive and basic. It is, at best, half-formed. The latter less so. Comparison is pointless because they are both less intelligent and more intelligent. So attuned are they, they are able to communicate neither using words nor vocalising thought. They have no dialect because it has no purpose. They have evolved to talk without language. Individual thoughts, inherent and instinctive, even intuitive, become whole as they gather: the greater the mass the more thorough their thought.
After they unite, thousands upon thousands of bodies together, they begin to make a slow journey. Each day will be hard and gruelling, the distance covered great. They do not pack any belongings but travel alone and unencumbered. Each year they make the same familiar route, with other tribes joining their curious odyssey. As they move through the plains they harvest food, they sleep together without roofs under their moon and find partners: it is here, in this annual pilgrimage, that their women find sexual congress with horny males prowling the crowds looking for new conquests. For them the journey is a necessary part of their existence, so established that they barely conceive why they do it. Yet their journey is a spectacle almost unimaginable to behold with the plain filled with thronging bodies as far as the eye can see. It is a thing of beauty.
For the young it is their initiation into the tribe. For the weak it is a struggle to keep up, even the greatest often failing. For the elderly it is the contented end of days. The collective will protects them but only so much. And under its beauty - and it is no beauty to them - the tribe faces further risk. To them it is no risk, and death is no stranger.
As they move they are subject to attack from groups from other unfriendly tribes who pick off the young or most vulnerable. As the tribe senses the attack they gather to find a greater safety in numbers but the attack is coordinated, planned over time, and the strike is often quick. Its leaders dart in, they make a route to an easy victim but if they cannot capture that, they moved with sleek rapidity to a softer target. The tribe moves quickly - no weapons, their only defence is in their speed and their collective - the earth beneath their feet flowing up in great swathes of dust that nearly obscure their line of sight. The fear is absolute, the panic terrifying.
Through this they keep moving. They journey on in single aim. When under attack they find a rhythm in their movements, twisting and turning together like the currents of the dark sea or the stormy wind as it rips around a tree or branch: at first it is merely at the nucleus but sustained they sway and turn together; a single dart away from danger and then flight produces a reaction so instant that it is in unison. The threat has made each of the tribe become one.
They do not have time nor mind to mourn each loss. Mother cannot weep for her child, nor comrade for comrade. There is no death ritual and the tribe moves on relentlessly and heartlessly. It is only together that they know the loss.
* * *
There is an untold story that all the group know. It is true but so shrouded is its origins that it is to them more legend than fact.
One by one and group by group, the tribe have congregated along the sweet plain. This day was the one that they will decide to begin their journey. The decision has already been made; the meeting a mere formality, a confirmation of the collective will.
There are no show of hands, no votes, no elections. There is not even a government. Decisions and leadership, such as it is, is taken by unified expression. Thought processes are instantly collected into a single writ. Because individual members of the tribe cannot think per se, independently they accept the judgement of the crowd with near alacrity. They had no previous thought in difference to the communal so there is no disappointment or disagreement. The will is absolute.
But, on this particular day, there was a sense of something different, a mood that none of them had yet picked up of sullen rebellion. For seasons their existence had been even harder than usual: little rain had fallen and food was in short supply; the weakest of the group had perished in the sun’s oppressive heat through lack of subsistence and disease. Each year, as they journeyed first north and then east to new, fresher - though still sparse plains - they found food harder and harder to acquire. Mothers had lost young ones, even the strongest of their brood; stillbirths had become more and more common, such that death was even less concern than normal and their bodies left to rot on the ground or be food for scavengers; elders had died though they had not even reached the end of their most useful years. Each year they travelled, more and more of their number were picked off and taken by assailants. Of the tribe it was no longer the weakest or the young who were preyed upon, but the strongest, lessened by malnutrition, too.
As the horde formed, they made up their terrible thousand upon thousand, but they were beginning to sense their collective weakening. Individual death was no cause for mourning but they felt a cumulative loss like a body feels pain when wounded.
☡ prowled amongst the members of the tribe, mixing in amongst the numbers. Although they appeared not to register his presence, some barely even moved their heads towards him as he walked past, there was a slight acknowledgement of his preferment. He looked no different except for his great frame and a white, nearly jagged scar that crossed his bare chest . For ten seasons, maybe more, for no-one has counted the time, he had led them in their journey. For ten seasons, maybe more, he had been weighed down by burden. He had aged before them and they did not even realise it.
As ☡ reached the near centre he raised his head and felt a ripple through the congregation. He felt the tribe’s thoughts begin to burden down on him. As he did so, he saw △. His sleek, fit body striding, focused, towards him, his tuft of strange white hair rising above his head. ☡ did not take his eyes from the approaching body until the pair stood face to face.
For several moments nothing happened.
“Our tribe is dying,” △ paced around ☡, his eyes gave off a threatening glare. ”You know this. I know this. The only one who does not know it is ☡. He is happy for you to die. He no longer cares. All he cares about is himself.”
The tribe began to lift their faces towards the sight as the insurgent walked around ☡ mockingly. The elder faced up bearing his chest defiantly at △. The onlookers began to stamp their feet in the barren earth beneath them. The clamour of their cries began to fill the air.
“Each season more have died. Young and old alike. They have suffered, been weakened, been allowed to die. We have been allowed to die. This is not our fault. The only one to blame is ☡. Each season we have suffered more losses. They - and you know who I speak of - have lessened us. They have robbed us. They have killed us. I have seen mothers with babies taken from us. I have seen our elderly taken from us. I have - and yes, this is true - I have seen full-blooded men taken down by them.”
The noise which had lessened, once more became cacophonous.
“I say this to you. Who is to blame?”
△ circled ☡ as the tribe reached a terrible fever pitch, the noise unbearable across their plain. He stared directly into ☡’s eyes as he stopped.
“I say it again. Who is to blame?”
He did not move. But calmly looked at his foe almost pressing his body against the other.
“Who is to blame?”
“☡ is to blame. ☡ is to blame.” The tribe stamped their feet enthralled. “☡ is to blame! ☡ is to blame!”
“Yes!” △ pushed his body against the other's forcing him backwards. “He is happy to see us wither and die. But I am not! We do not have to put up with the ways which ☡ is content with. Death! Children dying! Our tribe dying! It does not have to be this way. I will make sure that our young do not die and our old are looked after. I will make sure we are protected from those we do not speak of and we are safe from attack. I will make sure that our tribe does not die and that we thrive, we prosper, we live!”
“We thrive, we prosper, we live!” They stamped their feet and held the faces against the fierce sky, “We thrive, we prosper, we live!”
The tribe ploughed their feet into the ground, each time more firmly than the last. Their collective will beat like blood pumping through their veins. In unison they rallied to the call of dissent, while they raised their heads to the skies and let out loud meaningless shouts and hollow bellows as one.
“We thrive, we prosper, we live!” “We thrive, we prosper, we live!”
“Things can be better!” △ turned from☡ to face his crowd.
“Things can be better! Things can be better!” Their feet found the ground in unison again and again with a beat like thunder.
It took several minutes for the noise to die down, for the throng to stop their thunderous feet. Eventually there was silence.
☡ took a step backwards, then started to move. He ignored △ but searched the crowd.
“Yes. We have suffered,” His body ached with pain as he drew himself up to his full height. “But I cannot make the rain fall or make food grow. As we journey I cannot stop attacks on us. I have done my best. But has △ told you how he will make it rain, how he will make food grow, how he will stop our tribe dying? No.”
There was silence. No sound of foot against the ground. No calls from the assembled. For a moment they looked upon him and somehow remembered what he had been. Then, they felt in the back though they did not know from where:
“☡ is to blame. ☡ is to blame.”
“We thrive, we prosper, we live!”
“Things can be better!”
Slowly then quickly, they began to once more thump their feet against the plain’s floor. They called out into the dusty air no sound that made any sense, one by one forming their will and calling out until the frightening din was all that each could heard. On and on it went, foot against earth, call upon call.
From each corner the disparate became coherent. Until each three things found accord.
“☡ is to blame. ☡ is to blame.” They felt together.
“We thrive, we prosper, we live!” They felt together.
“Things can be better!” They felt together.
All three they felt together in unison.
☡ knew he had lost. It was as if something snapped. Somehow he knew he was no longer a member of the tribe. As they beat their feet and called out, he slowly moved, ignored, away through the throng and into the plain. For the first time he was alone.
The noise eventually died down. And while most looked to △, who seemed to them visibly bigger, one group or two allowed their eyes to follow the departed body.
They knew somehow what his fate would be. No longer of them, he would wander alone, finding food but becoming increasingly weak until one day he would lie down beneath a sparse-leafed tree to shade from the sun; he would lie down and there he would die. Alone. Forgotten. No-one would mourn this death.
He turned to them one last time.
“△ will let you down. He will fail you.”
“Yes,” Their eyes were set upon him this group or two. “He will. It is inevitable. But he has not failed us yet.”
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