Pyramie is sick. The memory never leaves him, and when he sleeps he dreams terrible dreams of wild men and sky fire engulfing him on the savannah. . .
He sees Terreo’s face. He squirms in the bunched grasses. The sky turns red above him. Their eyes are all on him.
The Gatherer mother at the head of his row slaps his face. Marnea does not like him. She never has. Now that he has overslept she can be cruel to him, and she seems ready to strike him again but he stands.
Stepping out from his bedding, he sees the other boys laughing and the girls gathering by the door in pairs, pointing. He has tears in his eyes and his head throbs, but there is no time to waste.
“Get into your group,” Marnea yells.
Like the rest, he wears thatched leaves and pulls them on now as he groups together with his partner, Nonna. Nonna is older than Pyramie and is supposed to be teaching him how to forage correctly, where to go, and how to come back on time by the sun, but he sets a pitiable example.
They exit the round earth opening with the animal-skin flap into the daylight. There, Fishers return from the river with baskets of fish. They hand these on to the Gatherer mothers who sit by the large blue stone, ripping the scales with flint knives, cutting the fish into strips and issuing pieces to the other mothers who rub them with ground spices from the savannah berries. This cold meat they then wrap in green leaves with figs and handoff to the Gatherer men who file past in silent lines. The Hunters mix in and take their own portions to sit on logs away from the group.
One of the Gatherer Mothers, Acka, then serves Pyramie his food.
“Tonight we will have dinner, and I will set aside some meat for you.” She says. “And more sauce.” Fresh blood is a choice dish when mixed with leaves and nuts for seasoning, and Acka makes the best.
He smiles and feels happy as she pats his head again and sends him off to eat his morning food with the Gatherer children.
Pyramie sits beside Nonna on a log. When he does, Nonna looks at the food in his hand and says, “Give me that surplus piece.”
“I won’t,” Pyramie says.
“You will or I’ll tell one of the Fishers that you get surplus from Acka when there is drought. She puts her hands on you.”
“She does not. Here!” Pyramie hands over the fish.
“The fig, too!”
He gives Nonna the fig and sits to finish what he has left on his leaf. When he does, he twists up the leaf so that it forms a spiral at its end like a flower bud. Then he holds the leaf before him, but Nonna says, “Why are you holding that like that? Throw it away.”
“I like it.”
“It is garbage. Throw it away.”
Pyramie does not listen. The call to work blares, and the boy Gatherers rise to trail the others into the forest.
They march past the altar on the promontory cliff, stained black with old blood. They bow to the Ashirah poles carved like flower buds and continue to the dirt trail. Here they walk single-file. Entering the trail, the boy grabs the same vine for support every day. Nonna will not use the vine, however. It is said the Hunters do not need it for support, and so Nonna says he does not need the vine either.
He tells Pyramie that Terreo is his father, and it is only a matter of time before the Terror comes to make him one of the Hunters and then he can be a Warrior. But Pyramie does not listen to Nonna when he talks. Instead he peers out through the forest canopy, yellowed in spots from drought, and looks at the birds and different animals and names them. When he asks Nonna their names, Nonna makes up words and runes, but he never says the same ones twice and so Pyramie stops asking.
At the root of the vine, the trail takes a hard turn right. The canopy opens and reveals the broken-rock-strewn bottom of the precipice where no one goes. Pyramie halts to view the skeletons shattered on the crags; a skull planted atop a sapling steals his attention.
“Keep moving,” Nonna says as he pokes Pyramie. “You will never learn.”
It is against their Way to go to the bottom of the precipice to look at the skeletons. At times when he creeps out at night, Pyramie hears the painted canines howling in the moonlight as they rip fresh victims. It is said to be a good omen when the dogs howl after the bodies because they are said to be Her dogs, and She accepts the sacrifices into the earth with their screeching.
The Gatherers round another bend. The trail ends and they step onto the gold grass savannah floor. Tree islands dot the grassland in the distance. Sparse forests stand to the left where the berries are abundant; high country to the right. The berries grow just beyond the charred and blackened area where the winter food used to be.
In that season they had only to walk to the trail’s end, but since last cycle, when the sky fire came and burned the forest, they no longer have that ease. It erupted from the clouds on a day when Ashirah was angry with the Astarte and burned the trees and bushes to standing sticks.
They found Dogo then, abandoned and covered in soot in the burnt forest. The painted canine cried at the edge of the savannah. His fire orange color glowed beneath the char as if he was a living ember. Acka retrieved him on her way back from gathering. He whelped and curled into her arms. They had never taken a canine before.
Pyramie looks for Dogo now. He would trade Nonna for him any time as a gathering partner. As it stands, he is stuck with the boy, whose age is his only advantage. Nonna even picks slow, and is always wrong about the time of the sun in the sky. Pyramie knows better, but Nonna will not listen. And Pyramie picks faster, but Nonna does not care.
Soon they spread out among the bushes and begin to pick together on their own. After a time, Pyramie picks enough berries to fill two full baskets while Nonna has yet to finish one. Two baskets is the amount the Gatherer mothers ask for from children before lunch.
Now that he has filled the baskets, Pyramie takes them up to be emptied so that he can go off to eat. He walks to Marnea. When she sees him she glares. He puts his head down and lays the baskets before her callused feet.
“Where is your partner?” She demands.
“He is still picking.”
“Then why are you not still picking? Go back and help Nonna finish his basket.”
“But he picks slow.”
Marnea grabs his ear and turns his body to face in the direction he came from. “Go!” She shouts.
But when Pyramie starts walking, Nonna comes running up the trail with two baskets full. He lays them at Marnea’s feet. She sneers. “Did Pyramie leave you to finish these by yourself?” She asks.
Nonna looks at Pyramie and smirks. Pyramie puts his head down.
But Nonna says, “No. He only walked faster than I on the trail. I had to pee in the woods, but I told him to go ahead.”
He stands grinning in Marnea’s face with his big gapped teeth showing and his cheeks scrunched up tightly. Nonna hates Marnea too.
“Get away from me,” she says. “Go eat lunch where I cannot see you. I am busy.”
And the two children run away, pushing each other as they go.
“You owe me,” Nonna says.
“We will see,” says Pyramie, and they laugh and push each other again.
They then take food from the baskets at the place where it is handed out and go and sit away together on the savannah edge. There they are sure not to encounter Marnea when she takes her food.
They do not talk. Pyramie finishes the paste and berries and wraps his leaves up again so that they look like the petals of flowers. This time he does not show Nonna. He just puts them on his waist and says nothing.
He naps long enough to dream and then Nonna shouts, “Look!” and points down the line between forest and savannah to where the blackened area begins.
“What is that?” Pyramie says.
There, a cluster of red flowers hangs from a burnt tree. But when the boys rise to get a better look, something else takes their attention.
Theo steps out of the forest in front of them. Her braids hang to the low of her back. She is dressed in bright feathers. When Nonna sees her he falls to his knees. Pyramie does not move, and Nonna hits the backs of his legs so that he falls prostrate as well.
Theo breaks silence. “I came to see you Gatherers harvest. But I think I am lost. One of you, take me back to the village.”
Nonna stands. “I’ll do it,” he says.
“No. I do not like your teeth,” she says. “You, boy, help me!”
Though they are the same age, Pyramie likes when she calls him boy. When he stands, she turns on her heel and walks off, causing him to run and catch up to her while Nonna looks on.