“Do not run away from me again,” Nonna says.
“Don’t talk,” she says. “It only bothers me.”
“The Leader said you could not run away. He said it and you must listen.”
She walks into the hut without saying another word and Nonna follows closely behind her.
“Are you going to try to run again? Because the Leader said that I can stop you now.”
“Do not say another word.”
“But he said . . .”
“Shut up.” And she falls onto the thatchings and covers her eyes with her arm.
Nonna walks up beside her and looks her over. “I will protect you,” he says, and she sighs deeply. He sees some of the thatchings stuck to the open wounds on her scalp and bends down to pull them from the sticky film that has formed on the redness.
“Why are you touching me?” She slaps away his hand and strikes his face. “Do not ever touch me, ever. I am not running. I am here. Here! Staying here. Don’t touch me,” and she breaks away and rolls so that he cannot see her face.
“I was taking the grass from your wounds.”
“I don’t care that they are there. I like them.”
“But it is not good. And I have to put more of the ointment on that Dahtah gave.”
“Get away! Why don’t you get away. Away!” She says it so loud her voice breaks. Then she slaps at him. He walks several paces and sits against the pole, but does not stop looking at her curled in the scattered grasses with the animal skin pulled up.
The Mother and Leader do not return to their hut this night and Nonna remains awake watching Theo under the beams of blue light that enter with floating dust.
All night she is awake; he knows because her breaths are often broken with soft sniffles. Whenever she stops for a moment and it seems to him she sleeps, she breaks in again with a low sob so that he knows she is awake. She often turns toward him to see if he is up and then rolls back to face the wall and resumes her misery.
But as night moves on he finds her standing, her toes pressed hard into the dirt floor and her hands against the wall where a solemn light enters from a crack. She talks to herself quietly and remains that way for some time.
“Pyramie, Pyramie,” she says and then drops to the floor and shivers but does not sleep. The blood on her scalp is dry and visible under the light, and from time to time her head shakes.
At dawn, the Mother and Leader enter the hut.
“He has to be slaughtered,” she says.
“He will be.”
Nonna hopes that they are not talking about him. The Leader then walks between he and Theo. He wears raptor feathers on his head. The animal sash he wears is hung with snail shells and small tusks. He looks into Nonna’s face.
“You are awake.”
Then he turns back to Theo in the corner. “Has she slept?”
“She is not well, she cries all night.”
“Have you comforted her?”
“She screams at me and will not let me talk.”
The Leader’s mouth opens into a smirk. “She is a strong girl.”
“Should I leave?”
“No. She has not stabbed you yet so she must like you.”
“Can I sleep?”
“Whatever happens to her is your fault.”
Nonna turns back to the Mother. “Sleep,” she says from a shadow and then walks into the light. Her hair is dark and she is clad in spotted young animal skins with feathers on her chest and hips. There are small white shells on her fingers and toes, and her hair falls in one long braid to the small of her back. “We will watch her now.”
Nonna closes his eyes for the first time. He rests his head against the grooved pole. It is hard at first to sleep in this position, and when he sees Theo staring at him in the morning he cannot sleep. She is like a ghost. Her dark eyes grip him like the endless savannah.
Soon he hears the drum beat in the village. The Mother and Leader are gone. Theo remains in her corner, watching him. His eyes sting and he is unsure. The drum becomes louder and Nonna stands and looks out to the rostrum on the promontory. The sun is up in the sky and he finds an Elder banging on the stretched reddish skin, this time with the huge knuckle of a dry animal limb.
The Mother talks with her women and a Warrior stands at the altar, waiting. Nonna watches him. He is large. Black paint covers his face on the protruding bone features so that he looks skeletal. His hands rest at the sides of his parched and aged animal skin that Warriors wear, and his head is up. He wears no spear. Nonna recognizes Meckle.
He then pulls his head back inside the flap and looks at Theo. She does not move. He walks to her.
“Something is happening,” he says. But she does not respond. She looks off at the mud and brambles where the crack is. “Do you hear the drum?” he says.
She closes her eyes, then says, “Go and watch,” and waves him away.
He follows her suggestion and leaves.
Soon the Gatherers begin returning from the fields and taking their appointed places before the platform. The Gatherers move about more than usual. One woman breaks ranks and is frightened back into place by a Hunter.
When they are all assembled, the drum ceases. There is a silent moment. No one moves. Meckle stands on the platform like Terreo, watching over the assembled. The Mother is beneath him with her flock. She is serene, fertile, now fully plumed for assembly.
Dahtah emerges from his hut shouting runes and carrying the two braids in one hand and with the other holding the skull staff full of blood. Behind him the Leader steps through the fence with Terreo beside him, but Terreo remains at the hut entrance. He stands erect. His wound is livid and packed with green and blue pulps and chaffs. His eyes are sallow.
When the Gatherers see him, they whisper. “He lives.”
Near the platform, Hunters hold a condemned Warrior, Breyuw, between them. His face is bruised, and his skin has flecks of dry mud and crimson.
Then the Leader mounts the rostrum and begins.
“Breyuw failed to take the Gift’s offering to Ashirah. He lost his Hunter. For honor he must be slaughtered. We cannot upset the Gift’s purification. We cannot bring Her anger upon us.”
In turn Meckle rises up to the rostrum and stands before the assembled. Dahtah dumps the blood over his inclined head. When this is complete, Breyuw is prodded to the rostrum. Meckle grabs him by the neck and drags him onto the platform. On his feet, he wobbles and Meckle lifts him underneath his arms and drops him onto the altar in a slow movement. They are nearly the same size, but Breyuw does not fight. His death is necessary now. He must die without fear or noise if he is to be embraced by Her afterward.
When the ceremony ends and the intestine has been cut from where it was pinned to the platform, all of the Gatherers agree that it was a very good execution. Nonna walks down the row and listens to the Gatherers talk. They discuss how smoothly Meckle lifted the victim onto the platform even though he was an unusually large sacrifice.
“He did not even struggle,” one Gatherer says.
And another of them comments on how expertly he cut open the cavity and drew out the intestine with very little resistance.
Even the victim acted well, with little crying, which made Meckle look that much better. They note that for a sacrifice to go well, the victim must also perform well, and they are pleased with Breyuw’s performance. The fact that Breyuw was much larger than the normal Gatherer sacrifice goes greatly to Meckle’s favor because he was executed without flaw. They all also agree that there was something brilliant in how Meckle finally threw him off the altar and onto the rocks below with such ease. He did so with a graceful movement.
“Meckle was with Terreo from the very beginning,” a Gatherer says.
“Yes, he was always the best young one in those days.”
Some of the Gatherers agree, and begin to discuss Meckle’s story, about how he recently dragged one of the wild men out of the forest where he had hunted him. Nonna shakes his head in agreement as he walks back to the Leader’s hut, hoping one day they will talk of him in that way.
There he sees Theo looking out from the flap. But when he reaches her she shakes her head at him and disappears into the darkened opening. He feels that she should learn to respect him, and then he enters the hut.