The Wastes

There were very few things David feared at his tender age. The tales of the Great Mother had instilled in him the courage and foolishness to disregard fear as a coward’s tool. There was no fear in the story of Rogan the Red Faced, whose temper contained a heat so fierce it could make the ice melt. There was no hesitation in Aleouac’s fable, whose strength was so great and her warmth so intense that she pierced the sky with the tip of her spear, allowing the long-forgotten Sun to shine one last time over the war-torn clans. Such was the beauty of its light, the power of its glow, that it extinguished the fires of war in the hearts of men and rekindled the flame of kinship and unity, as everyone wept at the idiocy of war and embraced one another like brothers and sisters.

            Once, when the clan was asleep and the cave was alive with the sound of a thousand quiet breaths, David went to find the Wall of Thoughts on his own. He wanted to study the alluring shapes on its surface, rest his hand on the dents of the stone and decipher its secret meanings. But when he was crossing the Chamber of Echoes, he realised how cold and silent it was, how far away the walls were from each other and scurried out of the room, following the comforting night-whispers of the clan back to the common chamber. It was only when he was back within the warm hurdle of the clan, right before falling asleep in the hollow of his mother’s arms, that David wondered about the strange feeling that had turned his stomach into a knot and made him walk faster than he would openly admit, and it occurred to him that it might have been the beginning of something akin to fear.

It was not until he saw the Frozen Wastes, ten years after having been poured into the world from the great dark by his first mother, that David experienced fear for the first time in his life. As soon as he set foot on the unfamiliar hardness of the icy surface, his first impulse was to run. Run back to the cave, away from the unnatural cold that bit through his furs and plunged its fangs into its confused skin, back to the embracing comfort of the clan. But when he saw James standing tall right behind him like an impassable wall, David understood that there was no way back. Turning his head towards the impossible vastness that were the Wastes, he felt the sudden urge to drop to the ground, to find the deepest crack on the ice and bury himself there.

Yet, David turned his back towards his first father and faced the Wastes.

Up until that moment, his world had been composed of several shades of brown and grey and many gradients between hard, soft and harsh. His hands knew of the smoothness of the cave walls, of the rough patches and odd dents in the Wall of Thoughts. There was a lifetime of touch and warmth beneath his skin, a layered universe of sensations and stimuli that told him who he was and where he belonged to. He was David, one of the Oikumen, inheritors of the Ice and the Earth, and the cave was his home. For as long as he could remember, that thought had been the pillar that held his mind together, the fundamental truth around which the walls of his inner cave had grown and expanded with thoughts and secrets of his own making, as he listened to the stories of the Great Mother and learnt from his mothers and fathers.

When David stepped into the Wastes, the pillar broke. There was no audible crack or sudden collapse, no broken stone or shattered walls. His mind remained structurally intact, yet something had changed. “The world is a cave without walls”, Janira used to say. He had always dismissed the thought as a quaint saying from the stories of old, because how could one even imagine such a thing? But as his eyes failed to process the surreal landscape before them, the small thing that had slipped into the stony chambers of his mind-cave became suddenly noticeable. There was a new echo within the halls of his cave, something subtle, lighter than a whisper. Yet, when David tried to listen to what it was saying, he could hear nothing. Nothing. That was it. The world was not a cave. It might have been long ago, but the only thing that now remained was an endlessly stretching space filled with the thresholds of bending arches long extinct and the hungry hollows of forgotten chambers left behind by walls turned to dust. Nothing. And it was now within him. Like the whispers of the Great Mother, this unfamiliar presence carried with it a story of its own. But the portrait it painted was not of great deeds and wise parables. As this new story told itself, it borrowed the walls within his mind cave, eating away at the ones that were already there. Eating away at him and all the names that came before him.

When David finally understood, it was already too late. He tried to cling to the names of the great warriors of old, to invoke the warmth of the clan with the secret words that he had learnt from the Wall of Thoughts. But as he tried to recall the faces of those he loved, he found that they were leaving him, as were their names and all that had come with them, until the cold filled everything he was and the only thing that was left for him was the frozen white of the eternal Wastes.

It was the voice of his father that brought him back. As soon as he felt James’s hand on his shoulder, David remembered. Through the spiteful cold and the monstrous stillness of the Wastes, through the thick furs and the old leather of his lamellar armour, David felt the warmth of all his brothers and sisters, as if the hand of his father carried not only its own weight and meaning, but also the fierce determination of Rogan’s temper and the flaming strength of Aleouac’s courage.

Thus, David took a step into the Wastes and then another, as the warmth exiled the cold from his body, as the names and faces of the clan flooded back to the halls of his mind. Yet, somewhere within the depths of his mind-cave, a wall remained to be claimed. It was a wall not unlike the rest, as it also told a story. Or rather, the beginning of one. It was the story of nothing. And it would stay with him for the rest of his life.

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The Cave

The first thing David ever felt was the cold, hard surface of stone. His first memories hosted no hint or trace of the warmth and comfort that were to fill his later years, but only the blind bluntness of naked rock against soft skin. The second thing David remembered was a voice, a delicate melody soothing and taunting him with the sound of what he would later call hope, as he groped and cried in the dark of the cave. The third, perhaps more compelling feeling David ever experienced was that of all-encompassing warmth, as he was passed along the arms of the clan and words of comfort and welcome were gently dropped into his ears by the people he would learn to call family.

            Years later, in the brutal cold of the Frozen Wastes, under the imposing weight of an unforgiving sky, David would often recall that moment of near peace, summoning the warmths he had learned to love and name through the cycles, humming the melody he had always remembered but never really learned, as the comfort of the clan filled his body and eased his mind.

            There was Janira’s warmth, calming and reassuring, an anchor to the world and himself. Although all the women in the clan that had ever given birth were his mothers, Janira was the one to pour him from the great dark into this world. From her, David learnt to find strength in compassion, to draw a circle big enough to embrace the whole clan in the arms of his mind, to feel their warmth as if it was his own. She also taught him the history of the world beneath the ice, back when the gods walked the earth and there was still earth to be walked on.

            There was also James’s warmth, silent and distant, never too obvious yet always there, like the faint glow of smouldering ember. From all his fathers David learned many great things about the world, such as the meanings of the different brightnesses of the great cloud that was the sky or the words spoken both by the mouth and the body. But James was the one to pull him from the dark into this world, and from him he had learnt about the Frozen Wastes and its lurking predators, as well as how to defeat them in combat, and for that he was grateful.

            Zenobia’s warmth was of another kind. It started like a familiar comfort not unlike the one he felt amongst his brothers and sisters, until one night, sitting together on the Chamber of Echoes as they listened to the tales of the Great Mother, David discovered a newfound warmth in Zenobia’s smile that stuck in his mind like a feverish thought. It was after one of these tales that she took him against the hard surface of the Wall of Thoughts, their warmths tearing ravenously at each other like the fabled Sun had done with the heat of the world uncountable cycles ago.

            And in all those memories, with their many corners and turns, their high ceilings and low archs, their comforting surfaces and unnerving hollows, the walls of the cave stood like a quiet witness to their unfolding lives. It was there that David had learnt to look at each of his brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, as if the warmth in their eyes and hearts was worth protecting with his own life. For they were the Oikumen, one of the last remnants of a world now buried in ice, inheritors of the ice and the earth, and that was their home.

The Ice

The day David turned ten, his father took him to hunt for the first time. The Frozen Wastes had always unsettled the child and his father knew it, as he knew that one day he wouldn’t be there to provide for him. That morning, James woke David up when the clouds were still dark and took him to the workshop. They prepared for the journey in silence, the stillness of the cave broken only by James’s occasional questions and David’s curt answers. As he checked the integrity of the thick furs that were to keep them alive in the frozen hell that were the Wastes, David had the feeling that he was being tested. It was not the first time he went through the preparations with his father, in fact he knew the process by heart now, but the way James looked at his hands go over all the familiar motions as they felt the weathered smoothness of the leather that made up most of the laminar armour, David could feel the weight of a lifetime of expectations looming in his father’s gaze.

Without a word, James handed his spear to his son with a solemn motion, and David took it between his small hands. Unlike the times he had held it while his father taught him how to move with it, how to thrust with it, how to kill with it, the spear felt real and solid, its head tipped by all the preys that had fallen before it in the hands of his father and the hands of his father before that. Contemplating the imperfections that ran along the weapon’s shaft, counting the small dents on the spear tip, David recalled each and every one of its stories as his father had told them to him, weaving the tale of the clan through years, back to a time in which the spear had been newly cast and its shaft as smooth as the cave walls. Then and there, it was difficult for David to imagine a time in which weapons were only a sporting rarity and people didn’t have to sleep huddled together to prevent the creeping cold of the Wastes from taking them. A time before the ice.

As father and son made their way out of the common chamber, David glanced back one last time trying to find Janira amongst the familiar mass of bodily heat and oblivious respirations that came from a clan still asleep. When his eyes couldn’t find her, he followed his father towards the cold light of the Wastes, where the ice waited patiently, and no comfort could ever be found.

In the lonely dark, amongst the warmth of her sleeping family, a mother wept silently for the fate of her child like many others had done before her, as she wondered how such small shoulders, which had only ever known the comfort of the cave, could ever hold the weight of their entire world.