Theo looks from the animal-skin flap into the half-lit darkness of the small moon . . .
The breathing is heavy inside where the wounded man sleeps. Now that he does, she can look across the row of poles and let her mind loose without having to worry about the man she takes care of.
She watches the village edge and the gated forest trail for signs that Pyramie might lurk there waiting for her.
She is alone. Even the braids she loved have been taken from her, and she touches the spots that still sting in remembrance. There were loose strands there until the Mother had them cleaned off. Now all the hairs on her head are the same short length. She rubs these for a time and turns her attention back to where he sleeps.
No one watches over her tonight. She walks to the rostrum. The blood of years lies dried there upon the stage of rocks. It is said to be a sin to clean it or to lose any of its preciousness that helps sanctify their earth.
She shuffles to the precipice edge and peers down to the rocks and blood below. She cannot see them in the dark – only the shapes – but she hears the cries of the many painted canines beneath in the shadows as they howl, eating whatever scraps remain from the recent sacrifice.
She listens at the edge, wondering what it would be like – afraid but excited. What it feels like to fall free into the end and die there as Gatherers do. Her gift finally meaning something when they eat her and return her to the Mother of all?
But this is a lie. There is nothing beyond but the rocks and the dirt and the canines. The ones who went before never came back. She has been in Dahtah’s hut and seen how pure the virgins are. They are all liars. What is down there is nothing – like everything else.
Soon she grows tired and walks up the center by the poles. If they see her they will scold her. But she is not concerned with being scolded.
She does not feel guilty.
She returns to her new hut and checks to see if he is still sleeping. He looks huge there, sweating in the open. His breaths come with trouble, and he mumbles often when he exhales.
At one point he cries out. When he stops, she retakes her position in the doorway and looks over the village in the light of the milky moon. Then something moves at the edge of the hut, breaking small twigs that lie there from the mud. It stops and she can hear breaths. When it moves again she walks out into the dirt around the twisted fence and sees Nonna standing in the moonlight. He leans on the hut, trying to hide.
“What are you doing?” she says to him. And he stands upright.
“You should not be here. Terreo will kill you when he wakes up. He is in great pain and has no time for boys.”
“Is he better?”
She moves inside the fence and takes Nonna by the hand to the other side of the hut, which is not visible from the front. They face the damp forest by the garden where the Elders teach her.
“I am sorry for you. Will you tell him I was here?” he says, “I can help him.”
She pulls her hand away. “Don’t feel bad for me, and don’t come here again. I will tell Terreo that you insult me. I will tell Meckle.”
“Do not. Do not. I will leave.”
He turns from her to face the forest and motions for her to be quiet.
“What?” she says.
“I heard something.”
“Then you should go find what it is,” she says.
She leaves him standing in the shadows and goes back inside with Terreo. Red light glimmers far off on the savannah. The time has come to begin gathering his ointment for the morning. There are so many flowers and herbs that must be combined and crushed and wetted, and if she does it wrong Dahtah slaps her face. She has made many mistakes and so now they grind it up and leave it in separate containers for her to mix. There is the red and the green as well as the other herbs she mixes on certain days to take down the swelling. The Mother makes her stay here.
The Terror smiles at her when she reenters the hut. Some light comes into the opening with her and falls onto his uplifted head. His features are cruel but his grin shows the gap in his over-large teeth. He drops his head back onto the mat and closes his eyes. He opens his eyes once more and she closes the flap.
In the darkness he says, “Come close.” She does and takes his hand. “Were you talking with someone?”
She is startled but answers, “Yes, Nonna was asking about you. He is always asking about you.”
“No,” she says. “He comes for you.”
“He is a good boy.”
Then she notices that he is sweating in the cool morning air. “You are burning,” she says, “I have to go and change your dressing. I will bring the cooling herbs.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“I do not want you to go. It hurts inside, but the ointments do not make it better. You do. Just stay for a time and then you can go.” He pulls her closer in the shadow.