The sun is coming. In the young light Pyramie sees the trees blackened out to the river where his fire still devours on the other side . . .
Above, he finds the high place scorched to the earth. It is black to the ground, devoid of life. Animal carcasses lie here and there. Black, skeletal trees stand like dead poles in a row. He knows that she is up there. He will go to her.
He takes his weapons bound in the skins and adds the firestones to his pack. He waits until the morning is fully risen and begins to work his way around the ledges. Soon he finds a place that is not sheer and climbs up to where his fire burned.
He stands with naked feet in the still-smoldering earth, stirring up the burnt smell with his steps. Smoke rises in spots with dark ashes. It floats in the air and gets pushed by the breeze that he sucks up with his nostrils. Then a rain empties onto him. He drops back his forehead and opens his mouth, letting the water droplets splash onto his ashed forehead and tongue. The drops taste like the ash and ocean. More smoke comes with the rain, but the rain cools the ground. He moves up the slope.
Uphill, a scorched trunk flies apart from the inside. He must duck the pieces that shoot and drop, bubbling sap as they pass. He continues up the mountainside certain to take down their high place. In spots trees still burn, swaying in the gray morning wind. Then in a place desolate with black char, a vibrant green bush remains untouched with red buds on its tips. It steams in the rain.
“Theo . . .” he mutters.
He continues on. When he is midway up the mountain, the clouds pull off. Soon they are gone, and the harsh sun pours over him in the ocean-blue sky. He moves faster now in the heat of the day until he reaches the place where the trees cease and the blackened bushes begin.
There he hikes up the loose and crumbling earth and passes into a spot where the dirt ends and the shattered rocks, moist from rain, begin. The fire did not touch this place. The broken and gray rocks continue upslope covered in lichen. They are slick and shiny. The mountain gets steeper and he scrambles to keep his footing in the stones, but then the high place begins to level and the rock pieces that do not sustain life give way to soil and to green. Here he climbs over a ledge.
Down the other side, her stone hut stands in the center of the mountaintop. For a time, he remains where he is, watching. A mist hangs in the air that thins under the sun and remains on the tips of the bushes and on the sparse grasses that grow at the peak. There are several flowers there below him. Directly ahead lies the path of white stone leading to the hut. The squat stones are gray and silver-flecked. He walks around her shelter, looking at the heavy moss and the many green plants sprouted from the roof. Behind him, skulls line the trail.
He heads to the opening and enters, expecting to find her inside. She is not. The flowers on her stone have withered, and he walks to where her raised bedding lies and looks it over. The interior of her hut is empty except for the flowers and one of the turned poles to the side. Around the pole he looks for Theo’s braids but does not find them.
He notices something different from the huts he is used to. The floor itself is not dirt but stone, laid as the walk had been laid. Then he sees her standing on the high place, watching him. She is in the grass beside the remnant of a white altar. Behind her the sky hangs blue with few clouds. She does not move. He goes to her.
“It was you,” she says without surprise.
He nods as he mounts the green, round top and rests beside the stone. A breeze draws past them. It is tinged by the odor. She moves away from him lightly on the soft ground.
“What did you do with her braids?” he asks.
“I burned them.”
He does not say anything. He clutches the spear she gave him instead and looks beyond her out into the distance where the cloud of smoke hangs from his fire, but she is looking right at him. He gazes to where the village should be and then back to his spear. Then she catches his eye and glares at him for a moment, lingering.
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
He nods again. “I know,” but he does not move. “Why did you make us Gatherers?”
But she does not answer him at first. Then she says, “Does it matter?”
He waits for her to say something else, but she does not.
“No,” he says.
She lies on her belly in the grass. The sky is perfect. She faces the ocean. He comes to her and stabs her where he knows it will kill. She is beautiful old. She does not make a sound when she dies.
He walks away with the obsidian she gave him moist. He climbs down the trail, back to the forest below. Her head is tied to his waist by the hair. An animal skin wraps her eyes.
The fire has not burned on this side of the high place and he continues down toward the village. When he reaches the spot where the trees and bushes grow, he walks around and collects as much of the dry vegetation and tinder as he can. He empties his food pouches and stuffs them full of the tinder and then walks farther down the trail into the forest.
“Are you looking for me,” he shouts. “You can’t stand against me!”