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Chapter 5: Threads of Iron

Tull ran limping down the road to Fava, and together they hurried to Chaa’s house.

Chaa’s spacious home had a front of red stone, but much of it was merely a cave, excavated into the back of a hill. Well-tanned mammoth hides served as summer doors.

Tull stumbled into the darkness. He was familiar with every twist in the tunnels of the house, but the darkness forced him to halt while his eyes adjusted to the shadows.

Fava pushed him down a winding hallway, guiding him through the dark tunnel as if he were a stranger, her hands almost caressing, in the manner of the Pwi. They soon reached Chaa’s “spell room.”

The room was made of crude walls hewn into the sandstone. Shelves along one wall held dozens of earthen jars filled with ointments and healing oils, while bundles of herbs hung from the ceiling—garlic and lavender, pennyroyal and dried seaweed. Their smell was overwhelming, mixed as it was with the pungent odor of Chaa’s sweat.

He lay on the floor, on the striped hide of a smilodon. He was nearly naked, wearing only a black loincloth and a light-gray vest painted with crows and mice. His legs poked out from under his clothes like oblong brown sticks, and his wife, Zhopila, bent over him, trying to spoon broth down his throat. The room was cool and moist, yet Chaa glistened with sweat.

His yellow hair was chopped off short, and his yellow eyes glittered under his deep brows. As soon as Tull saw Chaa, he knew something was wrong. The Pwi call themselves the “smiling people,” for they are nearly always happy by nature, but Chaa's face was drawn tight with pain and horror.

He looked up at Tull, as if relieved, and then ordered the women, “Leave us, please. Leave us alone. Go outside, far away.”

The women looked at one another, as if unsure what he meant. The Pwi seldom kept secrets from each other, and his request baffled them.

“Please,” Chaa begged, and the women hurried from the house, ran out into the sunlight, far away.

Tull took a seat, cross-legged on the floor, and Chaa stared at him from beneath heavy brows, eyes glittering. Chaa was young for a Spirit Walker, only thirty-five, but his magic had aged him. He was also a very kind man, good to his seven children.

Chaa tried to smile, but his face twisted into a painful mimic of a smile. “Help me sit,” he said. Tull grabbed Chaa’s elbows and pulled him up, leaning him against a pillow.

“Are you ill?” Tull asked.

“Just very weak,” Chaa apologized. “My teacher taught me that ‘A five-day fast is the beginning of power.’ So I starve myself for five days before I take my Spirit Walk, and I drink very little water. It focuses the mind, and brings me close enough to death so I can leave my body, and then walk the paths of the future. Because of this, people think I am something!” He spat the words as if they were bitter herbs from the ceiling above. “But as you shall see, I am nothing! I walk the paths of the future, but the paths branch at every step. I try to guide the Pwi, but how do you guide them when all the paths twist the wrong way? My master always said, ‘Once you take a Spirit Walk, you can never go home.’ Your perceptions are opened, and you see things in a different way. Never has this been more true than tonight.”

Chaa’s chest heaved. He suddenly grew sober, sweat streaming from his face as if the exertion caused him great pain, and said: “In eleven days Scandal the Gourmet will leave to catch his serpents. Go with him. If he is to succeed, you must capture the serpents. Only you. You must take Ayuvah and Little Chaa with you to build the road.”

Tull watched him for a long moment. Catching the serpents did not seem like a big job. It would be like catching guppies in an earthenware jar—except that these guppies were ten feet long with teeth of steel. Still, it seemed that others should be able to help.

Yet one never questioned a Spirit Walker. To do so only angered them. If they answered at all, their answers, half-truths and metaphors, tended to displease.

“Scandal leaves in a week,” Tull said. “You’ve been gone longer than you realize.”

Chaa waved his hand in dismissal. “He plans to leave in a week. He will not leave for eleven days.”

“Are you certain we need to make this journey?” Tull asked.

“I sent my spirit on its walk, and I flew through the ocean, beneath the water, and peered into the greatest depths, searching. There are no serpents in the oceans to the east or south. Deep in the water, a few serpents linger, but the old ones are dying from a plague. Only in the north are there any serpents. I traveled to next summer and saw great lizards swim from Hotland—long-legged running lizards with feet webbed like those of a duck and teeth like those—” he pointed across the room to a small wooden table. A decorative dagger sat on its surface, carved from a six-inch carnosaur tooth; evolution had allowed the creature to grow a tooth that was serrated on the inside for cutting flesh.

Chaa’s eyes widened as he remembered the monsters, but it was not a powerful fear, not like the horror etched in his face. “If you do not bring the serpents, the great lizards will swim across the narrow places of the sea. You must bring the serpents—not only to save this town, but to save many towns. You must learn to catch them alone. If I told you the way, you would try too quickly. You would die in the attempt. The timing is all-important. Yet when the time comes, you must act quickly. And you must act as a man of the Pwi.”

Chaa struggled to lean forward and touched Tull on the chest, almost a caress. “When I entered your body, I felt the pain and hopes of your childhood. I know how you longed for your own death, and the death of your parents. That was a very bad time. But I must tell you, that this day the hope of your childhood has come to pass: Go to your parents’ home. You will find that your father and mother are dead! Leave now!”

Tull leapt to his feet in surprise. He stepped backward, staring at the shaman in horror. He’d expected Chaa to tell of distant dangers, not deaths in his own family.

Chaa urged him. “What I say is true! Go and see!”

Tull stood for an instant, unsure if Chaa were serious, but the sincerity in the Spirit Walker’s words penetrated him like the warmth from a fire. He raced out of the room, limping toward his parents’ home in the human part of town, a few houses down from Moon Dance Inn. As he ran from the house, Fava shouted for Tull to stop, but he kept running. He could not run fast, so Fava ran alongside and began yelling, “Tche!”—help—as she kept pace, her tone signifying that she was as mystified as ever.

Tull was not certain what he felt. All through childhood he’d wished his parents dead, and now Chaa said that they had been mysteriously struck down, and he was not sure if he should hope that it was true or if he should feel guilty for wishing it.

Tull had moved away from his parents at thirteen, had built his own home on the outskirts of town. Even when his mother had finally given birth to a second child only a few years ago, Tull seldom went to visit. And then Tull realized that he was not running to learn if his parents were dead, he was running to learn if his little brother Wayan was dead.

Chaa had not said how his parents had been struck down. Tull imagined murderers in the house, and he was glad that Fava was calling the Pwi as they ran.

Perhaps his father had finally done it—killed his mother, killed little Wayan, and then taken his own life. He was that kind of man.

Tull crossed the bridge over Smilodon River, and behind him the astonished Pwi shouted, running like herd animals, the way Pwi always banded together in a crisis. He rushed up the street past old Caree Tech brewing her soap, past Moon Dance Inn, and from there the road curved inland between two steep knolls.

The sun was setting, and creeping shadows shrouded the whole quarter of town in darkness.

Tull’s stomach twisted into a knot and he staggered. Tull’s home held so many dark memories that he was loath to enter this quarter of town, where the kwea of old pain and old fear mingled in powerful, stomach-emptying proportions. Although the Pwi said that Adjonai ruled in Craal, Tull could feel the dark god’s hand even here.

His parents’ front door was not far—fourth house of seven among a row of homes built with common walls. Tull stalked toward it, and his breathing came ragged and heavy, restricted. This home had been a place of captivity for him, and with each step forward he felt that memory growing, as if chains and ropes built around him. The front of the house leaned forward precariously, nearly obscured by broken fish traps, piles of worn furs, barrels of stale salt, scrap metal, and the other junk Tull’s father sold for a living. Within the house Wayan, his three-year-old brother, could be heard shrieking in terror. Tull leapt forward and yanked the door open, thinking to stop a murder in progress.

The house was dim, with only the faintest light shining through scraped-hide windows. An orange cat sat on a crossbeam in the rafters, flicking its tail. Tull’s Neanderthal mother was stooping over the dinner table, a blue rag wrapped around her stringy orange hair. Her face was broad and fleshy, expressionless; her deep-set eyes were empty, like those of a cow that is nearly dead from exhaustion after giving birth. She did not smile like a Pwi. She clumsily spooned soup from a large bowl into a cup, using a regular human dinner spoon rather than a ladle. No Pwi would use such a delicate instrument, unless under force. At such a plodding pace, it would take her several minutes to fill the bowl.

“Where is Wayan?” Tull demanded. He heard an answering shriek out the back door, from the woodshed.

“Wayan?” his mother asked, as if in a dream, fumbling with her spoon. “He’s out back, playing with Jenks.”

A chill shook Tull. She always does this, he thought. She always calls him Jenks instead of your father at times like this.

Tull recalled how his father had “played” when Tull was young—the petty tortures, the beatings, the bloodied noses. Such things had ended when Tull got old enough to either run away or fight back. But Tull remembered.

He rushed through the back door and into the dim woodshed. Stacks of broken wood encircled a small chopping area. His father, Jenks, a huge barrel of a human with arms as thick as trees, was sitting on a chopping block, laughing. He held the tiny boy Wayan pinned to the ground with one foot, and Wayan shrieked, trying to free himself. The family’s big black mastiff hunched over the child, greedily licking soup from the boy’s face.

Wayan struggled to push the dog back, but Jenks roared with laughter and shouted, “Come ahead. Eat your dinner, boy!” and poured more soup onto Wayan’s face. The dog, confused and hungry, ignored Wayan’s efforts at escape and lapped at the soup.

Wayan shouted, “Tull, save me!”

Tull rushed forward and kicked at the dog, but it jumped away. Tull snatched Wayan from beneath his father’s foot, and Wayan clung to Tull madly, then pulled his way up Tull’s arms till he reached his neck, where he dug in like a frightened cat.

“Here now,” Jenks laughed, “What’s this? You're spoiling our fun!”

Tull stopped in surprise. He’d imagined the old man dead on the floor. Only a moment ago he’d felt guilty for wishing it.

“Leave him alone!” Tull said evenly. The cold anger that seethed from the bottom of his soul ached for release. He fought it, and the effort made his next words come out like a whimper. “Leave him alone!”

“Or what?” his father laughed. “Or you’ll cry all over me? Or you'll go home and pout for a week? Great God with your yellow teeth, save me from my whimpering son!”

“Just leave him alone!” Tull said, shaking.

“Ah, we were just having fun!” Jenks smiled. “So the boy’s a bit frightened. He’ll laugh about it when he’s a man.”

“He’ll never laugh—” Tull said. “Just as I never laugh.”

Jenks’s face went blank. Tull could see desperation in his father’s eyes. Jenks always wanted to control his children, to force them to love him. “What … what are you saying, boy? Are you mad? What do you imagine I’ve done?”

Give the stupid beast an hour, and he’ll forget what I’ve said, Tull thought. That's how it always is. Jenks forgets the ugly words. Tull looked at Jenks’s barrel chest and thick arms, his cruel, compassionless eyes. Jenks was ugliness incarnate.

“By God, boy, if sneers were spears my ass would be dangling from a pole right now,” Jenks said. “I’m glad to see you’ve inherited some of my spine. Speak up! What have I done?”

“What have you done?” Tull shouted and he wished he’d found his father dead. He wanted to kill him now, and he wondered if that is what Chaa had meant, that he should kill his parents. Instead he turned and slammed his fist into the stone wall. Blood spurted from his fingers as the skin split on his knuckles.

Wayan yelped and burrowed his face into Tull’s armpit. For a moment the whole room swirled in a red haze, and Tull grabbed a stick of wood. His arms ached with small cramps, the desire to strike out, and yet he was afraid to strike, so he only shook the stick at Jenks.

Tull spat his next words, trying to strike a blow as painful as any the stick could deliver: “You want to know what you’ve done? You’ve become the kind of person that even a whore couldn’t love!”

“You ungrateful dog!” Jenks shouted, staggering back in surprise, as if he’d never heard such words before. His arms knotted into cords and his eyes glazed. “Don’t you talk to me like that in my own house! I gave you everything! I’m still man enough to kick the shit out of you!”

“The way you’ll kick the shit out of Wayan?” Tull asked.

Jenks seemed astonished at the accusation. For a moment his anger collapsed in on itself. “Why, uh, I love the boy! I wouldn’t really hurt him. He’s my own flesh! I was just having fun. We were both having fun!”

“Oh, you’d hurt him all right. You just wouldn’t kill him. And he wasn’t having fun. You and me—We. Never. Had. Fun!”

Jenks looked around the woodshed as if at a total loss. Perhaps I’ve done it, Tull thought. Perhaps I’ve pierced through that thick skull of his. Maybe he’ll go easier on Wayan than he did on me. Wayan cringed and began to cry loudly. I should go now.

“Good-bye,” he said.

“What? What?” Jenks shouted. “But … you can’t leave yet! You … you shit! You ungrateful little shit. What’s going on here?”

Tull watched Jenks’s face redden with rage again. He sputtered curses, and Tull was unsure if he should turn his back on the old man, so he backed away, Wayan still clinging to his neck. Jenks shouted, “Don’t you close the door on me!” Jenks began advancing toward Tull, kicking logs from the woodpile.

Tull slammed the woodshed door between them. Jenks shouted curses, while Tull’s mother stood at the table, still idly spooning soup into the tiny cup, ignoring what was happening.

Through all the years, every time Jenks had beaten Tull or Wayan, the woman had stood like that—frightened into inaction. Like a dead thing, Tull realized.

His father and mother were both dead inside, dead to the hate and anger that seethed within these walls, dead to the fear that Jenks engendered in his own children.

Tull didn’t bother to say good-bye to her. As a child he’d wanted to save her, but as he grew, he’d realized that she should have been the one to save him. He'd given up caring about her years ago, or at least he’d tried. Even now, he fought back the desire to ask her to come away with them.

He stepped out the front door, listened as Jenks kicked open the back door and overturn the kitchen table.

Outside, a crowd of Neanderthals had gathered, come to see the commotion.

Tull walked down the street toward home, Wayan clinging to his neck. Tull stopped on the corner and found he was shaking with rage. Wayan whimpered, and Tull bounced him on his hip. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. A drop of blood dripped from his nose.

Jenks had broken Tull’s nose when he was ten, and since then Tull always got a nosebleed when he became too angry. Moon Dance Inn was on the corner, not far away, and when Tull turned that corner he always felt a sense of freedom, felt the tightening in his chest diminish.

“Don’t cry,” Tull whispered to Wayan. “Things will be better up here around the bend.” He laughed in pain and let the anger leach out of him, then continued around the corner.

Caree Tech was still in her yard, stirring her cooking pot. She crooned, as if speaking an incantation:

Threads of iron have sewn me to this world.

Threads of iron have sewn me to this shore.

Threads of iron have sewn me to this town.

Threads of iron have sewn me to this street.

It was an old slave chant. Tull glanced at her and jiggled Wayan in his arms, bouncing him as if the child were an infant, even though he was nearly three.

Tull could feel the threads of iron that bound him to this place: the ugly memories, dark and desperate, of his home; the sweet sense of fulfillment he received in passing the inn; the echo of release from standing on this very street; the warmth and joy he felt in the presence of Ayuvah. Each was a thread in the tapestry of his life; each bound him to this place, defined his being, even as he struggled to escape such definition.

Wayan’s hands were sticky with soup, and his face was dirty. A small stream washed down through the hills and crossed the street under a culvert next to Caree’s house. Tull took Wayan to the stream, dipped the end of his long black breechcloth in the water and began sponging the child's face.

Wayan asked, “Tull, will you take me away?”

Tull wanted to. He wanted to save Wayan now, as much as he’d hoped to be saved as a child. But he couldn’t do it. He hugged Wayan to his chest. “No, I can't take you now. I’m going on a long trip. It’s too dangerous. It’s no trip for a child.”

“I can’t be here!” Wayan shrieked. “I will get hurt from Jenks!”

“He’ll hurt you, but worse things can happen in the mountains,” Tull said. “There are Mastodon Men in the mountains who would eat you. Besides, Jenks is growing soft in his old age; maybe he won’t treat you as badly as he treated me. Just watch out for him when he comes home from hawking his junk, especially after a bad day. If he hunches his shoulders when he walks, run and hide from him—far away from the house. Keep away till after dark. Let him work his rage out by beating the dog. And if he catches you when he’s in a bad mood, stay far away from his feet so that he can’t kick you. After he beats you, he’ll want to apologize. He’ll want you to hug him so that he’ll know the apology is accepted. If you don’t hug him, he'll get mad and beat you some more—so give in quick! Understand?”

“Yes,” said Wayan.

“Good boy,” Tull said, setting Wayan down on a rock.

He wiped the soup from Wayan’s face with the wetted breechcloth. “You’ll get by all right. Now, go home. Jenks is feeling sorry for himself, now that I’m gone. He’ll want to give you something nice so that you’ll like him. If you’re smart, you'll let him.” Tull stood up to leave.

“I’m smart,” Wayan said, and Tull patted his head.

Wayan clung to Tull’s legs as if he were just learning to walk. His lower lip trembled, and his green eyes were wide with terror at the thought of returning to the house.

Tull considered a moment. He didn’t know if Wayan could understand how Jenks wanted to control them, wanted to force them to love him. The old man had even gone so far as to give them names that a Neanderthal could never pronounce, forever keeping their mother from correctly uttering her sons’ names. Jenks was a sick, selfish man, but Tull didn’t know if he could describe the illness to a child so young. “One last thing,” Tull said. “Never talk about running away, or Jenks will chain you to your bed!”

Wayan didn’t answer, just looked up with eyes wide with guilt, as if he’d done something wrong. Tull reached down and pulled up Wayan’s pant legs. The boy had a shackle on his right leg. The same shackle Tull had worn as a child.

If Jenks had been in striking distance, Tull would have killed him. The shackle was thick and heavy, but it was only iron. Tull grabbed it with both hands, and such was his wrath that he pulled it hard enough to snap the hinges. For years as a child he had struggled to break that shackle, and instead he had only bruised and broken his leg against it.

Caree Tech was still crooning “Threads of iron, have sewn me to this house” narrowing in closer and closer to the end, where the threads would have sewn her to her task. Tull knew Caree must have been reminiscing about her sister, taken by slavers years before. Always the song ended with “Threads of iron, have sewn me to this oar. Threads of iron, bind me evermore.”

Tull picked up the broken shackle and headed toward his parents’ house, leaving Wayan by the stream. The words to the song hummed through Tull’s head, “Threads of iron, have sewn me to this town.” He walked past the bastard children jostling and playing tag by the inn, past the fabric shop and spice shop.

“Threads of iron, have sewn me to this street.” And he imagined that with each step he was bursting the threads of iron that bound him to this place, snapping the filaments that bound him to his father, to his mother.

“Threads of iron, have sewn me to this …” and he reached his father’s house with its crowd of gawking Neanderthals still standing outside the door.

Inside, Jenks was roaring and tossing furniture. Tull kicked the door open.

Jenks shouted, “What are you doing back here?” His face was red. His nostrils flared and his whole frame shook with rage. He rushed forward. When he was within arm’s reach, Tull lashed out with the broken shackle, slamming it into the side of his father’s head.

Jenks dropped, blood spattering from a gash in his temple. He lay on the ground, motionless.

Tull didn’t know if the man was dead or alive. He didn’t care.

“Threads of iron do not sew me to this family,” Tull said. Jenks rolled to his belly and began shaking his head, struggling to regain consciousness. Tull felt a little blood running from his nose, and he wiped it with his sleeve. He threw the shackle to the floor and looked at his mother, quietly standing in a corner, waiting for Jenks’s tantrum to subside.

Tull said calmly to his mother, “I’m leaving with Scandal the Gourmet. I’ll be back in a few weeks. You and Jenks are dead to me now. But if I come back and find this shackle on Wayan’s foot again, you’ll both be dead to the rest of the world, too. I’ll kill you both myself.”

Jenks said groggily, “He’s my son. I own him. I’ll do what I want.”

Tull spun and headed out the door, trying not to limp, trying not to let his father see him limp, and he found Wayan sitting by the stream where he’d left him.

Very obedient boy, Tull thought.

Wayan lunged forward and grabbed Tull’s leg when he got near, and clung to him. Tull ruffled the boy’s hair, touching him softly, and said, “Good-bye.”

“I love you. Only,” Wayan said, and he let loose of Tull’s leg.

You are only a child, Tull thought. How can you love anyone?

Deep inside himself, Tull felt something was wrong. He could not tell Wayan that he loved him in return. He was not sure if it were true. If Tull really loved Wayan, wouldn’t he have done something before now? In spite of the powerful kwea that seemed to press Tull away from this part of town, wouldn’t he have stayed at home, protected Wayan, at least have been something more than a stranger?

It should not be so hard to love, Tull thought. Even stupid children do it. Tull did not know what to say to the boy.

Tull pried the child loose. Several Pwi were still watching him, and in the crowd Tull saw Chaa, the old Spirit Walker, being supported by his wife.

Chaa walked forward, put his arms around Tull’s neck and whispered in his ear, “When I entered you, I saw your loneliness and rage. You must put this aside. There is no sin greater than loneliness; no vessel can be as empty as a life without love. You cannot any longer be no-people, unfamily. Would you be willing to choose a new family from among the Pwi? Would you become a man of the Pwi?”

“Can this be done?” Tull asked.

Chaa nodded. “There is a ceremony for it, an old ceremony that has not been performed in my lifetime….”

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