The Elders huddle beside the platform bobbing their heads as they talk quietly. From time to time some look upon the platform where Theo kneels beside Terreo’s body . . .
Nonna stands next to Theo, but she is not concerned with him, or Terreo, or his wounds, or how Dahtah probes his viscera with a stem. The sun is low on the sky, a blood rock coloring her world and oddly lighting the faces of the few Gatherers who have walked around the side of the altar near the precipice. These she watches. She has never seen Gatherers stand in this place before.
The Mother walks forward with her throng of women. When she reaches the platform she motions to a Follower of Dahtah. She then whispers into the ear of her preferred woman who, in turn, whispers into the Follower’s ear.
He steps off the platform and runs down the row of Ashirah poles to the witchdoctor’s hut and quickly returns carrying a knotted mat of dry savannah grass. This he lays beside Terreo. Seeing what needs to be done now the Leader shouts, “Move him onto it!” Some Followers and a few Hunters do as they are told, placing Terreo on the mat.
The Terror no longer makes a sound but grits his teeth. They then carry the limp man over their heads through the crowd of Gatherers, past the crooked fence of Dahtah’s hut, and in through the animal-skin flap that leads to the darkness and glow. The Elders watch and shake their naked heads in agreement while the Leader stands as he was before.
Blood and loose thatch cover the platform, trailing in a line on the stone beyond Theo. She remains still, watching Nonna chase the procession off the platform to the gate of the hut. “Let me in.” The Follower who guards the gate will not move.
Theo continues viewing Nonna. Then the Mother’s women surround the platform and block her view. The Mother rubs Theo’s scalp lightly, pulling some of the hairs from the braids between her fingers.
She plucks several and raises them to her mouth where she considers them as though they were important. These she blows away. When she does, she points to the Leader and then to the Gatherers still in disarray and plucks more hair from Theo’s head.
The Leader has gathered himself now at the Mother’s direction and moves to the edge of the platform and steps down to where the people stand. They give him room. “Back away. Stand in your places.”
When he says this, the Hunters move toward the throng of Gatherers and flank the Leader with their spears protruding like spiked animals from the forest glen, while the several Warriors among them direct the mass.
Behind the wall of Hunters, and within the circle of women, the Mother whispers to Theo. “Why were you there?”
“I wanted to see what they do,” Theo responds.
“But you know what they do.”
“I wanted to see it.”
“But you caused this.”
The Leader steps out from the group of Hunters and climbs back onto the platform. The women allow him through their number and then re-form.
“Will he die?” Theo asks him. But the Leader does not respond.
“We have to convene with the Elders,” he says at last.
“You have to act before this settles.” The Mother scolds and turns to Theo, “Your presence there caused this. And they know it.” She strokes her hair and begins, “Child, you have to cut your braids in purification before them, here to the scalp. There is no other way.”
“Let her give them to Terreo as her pledge,” the Leader says.
“She cannot pledge him; we must send runners to deliver her braids to Ashirah as an offering,” the Mother says.
“You will shame me.” Cries Theo.
“It is what must be done! You know the ritual and we will not wait. If you were only with him with the fire it would be another thing, but the Terror has been disgraced and you were there with that . . . that child. They saw you speak to him and then he escaped.”
Theo tries to speak but the Mother cuts her off, “This is final,” she says. Then the Mother motions to the women who open like a fan around her, exposing them to the many Gatherers fixed in the sun. The Mother, the Leader, and the Gift are without movement now. It is the Way for them to keep still when they are together like this before the assembled.
With a nod from the Mother’s preferred woman an Elder asks the Mother and Leader for their word. “Is there a announcement?” He shouts.
As if moved by his words, the preferred woman takes Theo by the hand. Theo sits on the altar and looks out into the throng. The boy Nahane stares at her.
“He has decided,” the preferred woman says over the body of them. She wears many different feathers and the late light of day shines off the greens and slick blacks. “Bring Dahtah with the red blade,” she says.
The blade bears a bone handle made from a pubic crest. It is small, the handle white, the blade jagged and sharp. Dahtah holds it in one outstretched hand like a presentation. All around him crowd his virgins. They have been plucked from the Gatherer throngs as babies because they bore the mark when inspected.
Then the Mother dispatches the preferred woman to select two men from among the Hunters and Warriors to carry Theo’s braids to Ashirah. The preferred woman points first to Mikka then to Breyuw, who step forward and stop. Breyuw is a Warrior and Mikka a Hunter.
When they are selected, Dahtah hands the blade to Theo.
“She was with him,” the Mother shouts aloud to the gathered. “She will prove her mistake by humility. She will remove her hair that is tainted by deed, and Ashirah will accept it on the high place.”
Theo first observes the knife and then shows it to them as she is supposed to. With it above her head she thinks to plunge it into Dahtah’s sweaty, naked back as he praises the people. Instead she puts the blade to her head and cuts first one braid off then the second. Her head bobs forward slightly from the weight change. The Gatherers and Hunters to the one of them smile.
The Mother comes forward to comfort her, but Theo takes the blade edgewise over her head and begins scraping until the remaining hair falls in clumps with slight skin attached and blood running into her eyes.
She then turns the blade to drive it down into her own eye. The blade hardly rises before the Leader’s hand catches her wrist and stops her. “Not that far,” he says.
The Mother quickly steps before the altar now and takes the two braids from Theo’s hand. Raising them above her head she says: “Let these be acceptable to Her! In all humility the Gift has given these in the women’s purification to pay for her transgression. Let these be acceptable!” And the Gatherers repeat her words as they sit on their knees in the dirt, crying out to the sky above, “Let these be acceptable!” The Elders nod in approval.
Then with the braids the Mother beckons Mikka and Breyuw to the platform, and says, “Hope that Ashirah accepts these. Tell her the Gift is willing to die if this is not enough.” Then she looks up. “This is a test for us: that she be shamed this way. She has been shamed and has accepted it; we cannot lose our faith in her or who she will be. It was necessary for the Gift to see the wicked child so she could learn of the evil, and she has repented.”
The Mother then waves Mikka and Breyuw away and the Hunter and the Warrior walk off down the steep path to where no one goes beneath the precipice rather than taking the gated trail as would be the custom.
The Leader marks their movements while holding the blade in one hand and Theo’s little body in his other. She weeps into his chest, mixing there her blood and tears against his muscle. She cannot stop herself crying. Blood cakes her face. The missing spots of her scalp stand open in the breeze off the savannah.
“Why can’t I die?”
He does not answer but walks off the altar with her in his arms. As they pass Dahtah’s hut the Leader looks down and finds Nonna there, kneeling.
“You knelt beside Terreo,” he says to the boy, but gives him no time to reply. “Why are you not with the other Gatherers? Have you no respect!” But Nonna goes dumb and does not answer. He is about to drop to his knees when the Leader continues. “Follow me then and you will keep watch over her.”
Nonna follows and they disappear into the large hut at the end of the row of Ashirah poles, Theo’s face buried into the Leader’s shoulder as he carries her.