Note: Initially submitted to Teitho: Crossroads, September 2009. Second Place.
The sun is high, a white inferno in the colourless vault of the sky. The God of Death surveys his realm; distant, merciless. He is the Lord of Harad, worshiped now only in secret. Still he rules our land. He gives life to the river-valleys, to nourish the crops that feed us all, vale farmers and desert-dwellers alike. Here, in the empty wastelands where no crops grow, he gives only death: death to those who defy him. He gives death to those too foolish to flee before him. He gives death to those too proud to hide from his pale face. He gives death to those deprived of that choice.
I sit in the shade of my hut on the edge of the village, as I have sat every afternoon for many years, and I weave my baskets. My hands are hard and calloused, thick with ropey muscle though the rest of my body has wasted away into the brittle sticks of old age. My left eye is all but blind, glazed with thick cataracts – a gift from the God of Death. My right eye is as sharp as it ever has been, but I do not need its clear vision for my task: my fingers know the work, and I do not even need to watch them weave the reed wands in and out, in and out. I am free to observe the world as I labour, and no one takes notice of me. I am a part of the landscape to them; as much a part of the desert as the broad flat stones or the wild scrub-bushes that are the only living things that thrive beneath the searing caress of our fiery master.
As always, I watch the cross-roads. The south road and the west road meet here, and long ago, in a time that even I cannot remember, this meeting of the ways gave birth to the village. First a well was dug, for the use of the travellers who walk this road. Then it became a place for the itinerant traders to camp and to haggle with one another. Soon it was a market, a gathering-place of the desert people, where they might exchange their poor goods for the necessities that their sandy home could not provide. One day, a trader grew weary of wandering. He built a house out of mud and clay. Many more houses were built. Intermarriage between families occurred. So the village was born.
Some days, no one comes down either of the lonely roads. We do not roam so far from our homes now, in these dark days. Our young men are taken, carried off to serve the Eye. Some say the Eye is the God of Death himself, come down to earth to devour our people. Some say the Eye is a mighty king, who will lead us to war and conquer the pale-faces. Some say there is no Eye at all, but that our sons will never return from the northern savannah where the great beasts graze. I do not know. I do not care. I am old and my sons are dead, slain by the pale-faces in the land of promise beside the Sea. I care for nothing any longer, save my baskets and the daily watching of the cross-roads.
There are days when the camels come, laden with spices or produce, or bearing young brides to distant towns where they will be given in marriage in exchange for many riches. Only the wealthy can afford to risk bandits and the rebels, to dare the roads with costly camels. More often I see a ragged family come over the horizon, emaciated donkeys frothing in the heat, naked children toddling along as best they can. A thin, ill-tempered wife or two, bony bodies wrapped in tattered veils. They always seek the same thing: water. In the desert water is dearer than gold; dearer than gems; dearer than blood.
The stranger at the cross-roads today would smite off his right arm for water, I know as I watch him. If I went to him, a skin in one hand and my old rusty saif in the other, he would take the sword and maim himself in exchange for the skin. There are many who would make that offer; there are many who have cause to hate him. This, too, is plain to see.
Some of those with such cause have left him here, bound to the pillory where the south road meets the west. I know the ones who have done it: rich merchants of the village, the nearest thing we have to leaders. He was taken yesterday, as he roamed the streets in the last hours of evening, begging from hut to hut for a little work, any work, that he might do for a measure of meal or a dish of rice. I watched him then as I watch him now, as I sat in my doorway soaking my reeds. His robe was cheap and dirty, but new: the hem had not yet been worn ragged, nor were the ill-made seams splitting. As the sun sank low and the night grew cool, he removed the scarf from his head, and his long dark hair fell about his shoulders. That was his mistake.
My people are not a heartless people. We are generous to the poor, and kind to the weak. Those who have much share with those who have little, and even those who have little share with those who have nothing, and no one would deny man or beast the use of the village well. But for this stranger, it was different. It did not matter that he looked weary from his days in the desert. It did not matter that he was obviously poor and desperate. It did not matter that his thin face and hollow cheeks spoke of long deprivation. No one would give food or work to such a one as he, with his pale face and his pale eyes and his pale teeth that bore none of the scars of our potent black drinks and our strongly-spiced food. When he removed his headscarf it was plain to all what he was. A pale-face. An enemy. A tark.
They set upon him three doors down from mine: five strong men in their middle-years. I watched, many watched, as they overpowered him and pinned him to the hard-packed earth. Angry voices demanded explanations: a name, his purpose, his place of origin. Moments ago the stranger had spoken in our tongue; strangely accented, perhaps, but fluent. Now as if he could not understand their words, he made no answer as they questioned him. He made no answer as they struck him. He made no answer as the rich men decided his fate.
Now he kneels at the cross-roads, his ankles bound together with coarse rope. His hands are bound too, before him. That is a small kindness: he can raise them up to shield his face, he can even crawl a short distance on the cracked earth. But not too far. A cord affixed to his melded wrists is looped and knotted around the ring of the punishing-post. He has been there, bound to our simple pillory, since yesterday evening. A short time, so it seems to me. It does not seem that way to him.
They stripped him of his robe before binding him, and tore away the strange garments he wore beneath. When he was clad only in the linen that wrapped his loins, they paused for debate. In the end, the last grimy garment remained, out of deference to the decency of the village women and the young girls whose innocence should not be besmirched even to punish a tark.
Naked through the cool desert night, he must have shivered, trying to draw his legs to his chest to retain his body's meagre heat. When dawn came and the God of Death rose, he had huddled there, miserable in the mounting heat while the sweat poured down his chest and his back and his pale, pale face.
Now his perspiration is spent. His body has no moisture left to spare. The pale skin is red already, baking in the sun in the heat of the day. By dusk he will be blistering and raw. His skin will slough off, leaving bare, weeping sores. Perhaps he will die: the sun-sickness is cruel. The God of Death has no mercy.
Only his pale face remains, sheltered from the sun by the curtain of straggled hair. His head is bowed, and his breathing is laboured. Through the greasy locks I can see his mouth. It hangs open as if he lacks the strength to close it. The lips are cracked, blood oozing sluggishly from deep fissures in the tissue. His tongue, dry and swollen, spills out against his pale white teeth. He was already thirsty when he reached our village, his water-skin twisted on his hip, wrung dry in an attempt to harvest the last drops of life-giving fluid. Now that thirst is beyond bearing, and the heat bakes away his body's last reserves.
He knows the torment of the God of Death.
When night falls they will set him free. Perhaps they will return his robe to him. Perhaps not. The tark must be made to understand that his kind are not welcome here. Spies of the North, enemies of our people. I think of the tales that came out of the west last winter: tales of fall of the Shipyards in the city of the loyal pale-faces who serve the Eye. Ships came by night, bringing fire and the sword. Many were slain. My sons, who many years ago went with their wives and their children to seek a better life in the fertile lands, were slain. The tark captain was a tall man, they say, with hair like the night and eyes that burned with the wrath of the God of Death. I close my eyes and imagine him, a pale-faced demon clad in black mail, his eyes twin orbs of shining white.
How different is that vision of destruction from the shrunken figure before me. His eyes, the pale colour of raw silver, are glazed and deadened with misery. They hold no fire, and the flesh around them is swollen and puffy from the heat. There are black bruises on his ribs from the beating, and a wound beneath his ear is dark with dried blood. In the morning, the small children gathered to mock and prod the helpless prisoner. Some threw offal, some threw small rocks. One little warrior, no more than four years old, hit his mark with more force than the others, and his stone is remembered on the tark's sun-scorched neck. He is a pitiful figure, bare and helpless beneath the burning eye of our god. He is no threat to anyone.
I hear voices, coming down through the village. High, eager voices raised in mirth. The young boys are coming to see the pale-face.
They are seven and eight and nine years old: too young to be stolen away into the armies, too old to lie down to sleep in the middle of the day like the babes and the women and the other old men. They are filled with vigour and they bore quickly. They do not fear the God of Death; not yet. He is their ally today. He is their partner in jollity.
One of the children carries an earthenware urn. As they pass me, his steps sway a little, and a dram of water sloshes over the rim, landing among bare brown feet. I nod grimly to myself. I know what they are doing. They have done it before.
They gather around the bowed figure, kneeling in the dirt. One of them asks, laughing, if the man is thirsty. He does not answer. He is not so far gone, perhaps, that he forgets the wanton thoughtlessness of children. He keeps his eyes upon his bound hands as the chant is taken up. Pale-face is thirsty. Pale-face is thirsty. Pale-face, pale-face. Pale-face is thirsty.
They pour a little water onto the road. It sings as it falls, splashing in the dust. The man's eyes dart briefly towards it, and he watches as the dry earth drinks it in.
The boys are disappointed. They had hoped for some more dramatic reaction. Again they spill the crystal fluid, nearer now to the captive. The man understands. He knows they will not give him water. His head bows a little lower, and now he shrouds his sore eyes against the next sparkling torrent to fall wasted upon the ground.
Frustrated by his lack of response, the boys jab at him with their feet, shouting derisive words that it would shame their mothers to hear. One lad dips his hand into the urn and flicks his fingers so that the drops fall on the reddened abdomen of the pale-face.
At last he moves. The feeling of water on his desiccated skin is more than even his stoicism can bear. Fingers made clumsy by the tight bonds scrabble at the droplets, chaffing away the dying skin. Desperately, afraid that he moves too slowly, the man thrusts his filthy fingers into his mouth, sucking noisily upon them. The sound is dry, fruitless. He garners no relief from his frantic action.
The boys roar with laughter, cheering and jeering. The young are cruel. They cannot understand his pain. They cannot imagine his suffering. All that they see is a pale-faced tark, bound and helpless, humiliating himself for their amusement like a tumbler on market-day.
They pour water on his back. The soft, keening sound that rips from his parched mouth speaks of two-fold torment. The agony of the cold fluid on his burns seers through every nerve in his body and robs him of coherent thought. It is simple pain: natural and even cathartic. It will also cool him and guard his life a little longer from the God of Death. But the primal knowledge of the water washing over him, pure and chilling, when he cannot slake his thirst nor even damp his lips... that is torture.
The urn is empty now. The game is over. A few attempts to elicit a reaction through pain fail. The pale-face is beyond pain. He knows only thirst, and the hatred of the God of Death. The children grow bored, and one by one they disperse. The last to go spits disdainfully upon the tark. I recognize him. His older brother died in the west when the Shipyards burned.
We are alone now, the pale-face and I. His breath is laboured. Sounds issue forth from his mouth, opening fresh canyons in his lips. His tongue bleeds. I do not understand the words, but I am old enough to know the tone in which they are uttered. Such things are forbidden here, since the coming of the Eye, but the wretched man is praying.
Perhaps he knows, after all, that it is the God of Death who causes his pain. Perhaps he thinks that he can obtain mercy by offering supplications. I am envious of him. I covet his courage. Fifty times the rains have come and gone since last I raised my voice in prayer, since last I called out to the God of Death in praise or plea. My tongue is silenced by my fear, by the fear of death upon the swords of the ogres of the Eye, the misshapen creatures who collect our youth and who have taught us their ugly words. Tark. It is a very ugly word.
The pale-face falls silent. I wonder if he has abandoned his last hope for mercy, or whether his thirsting throat cannot continue. He stares at his hands, head bowed low. He stares.
His eyes are no longer misted with desolation. There is fire in them now. They glint like true-silver in the sunlight. His prayer has not brought release from his bonds; it has not brought him water. It has brought him hope, and strength, and the will to endure. I know now that he will not be found dead at sunset. I know now that the burns will not slay him, either. He will survive. Somehow, he has made up his mind to survive.
I cannot remain here, watching his suffering. I lay aside my half-finished basket. It will wait until another day. I pick up my walking-stick and climb painfully to my feet, old bones protesting angrily. I stoop and gather up my drinking-gourd, still half-full. Unlike the young boys I understand the value of water. I do not take it for granted simply because our well has never run dry. I move to hobble around the house. I look back at the pale-face, kneeling in the dust at the cross-roads.
Before I realize what I am doing my shadow has eclipsed the God of Death. The man does not move, but his naked back tenses. I squat on rickety, fleshless hams. I hold out my gourd.
'Drink,' I say. I know that he speaks our language.
His whole body contracts. His head snaps up. Grey eyes, pale eyes, stare into my dark ones. They are made enormous by astonishment, by wonder, by hope. Yet his hands hesitate. He is unsure whether he can trust me. I might snatch the gourd away, or dash it from his lips. I thrust it further forward.
'Drink,' I repeat.
Swollen fingers manage to clasp the bowl of the gourd. He cannot lift his arms so high without tearing the blistering skin over his elbows, so he lowers his lips to the vessel. Clumsily he slurps up a mouthful of the life-giving fluid. He waits, though I can feel his fear, his knowledge of the danger of delay. In this moment of hesitation I might easily take the water from him, but if he drinks too swiftly he knows that he will sour his stomach and retch up the fluid. I smile to myself. He is not as stupid as most pale-faces.
I do not take the gourd. He drinks again. This time he empties the vessel, his bloated tongue searching greedily for the last priceless drops. His hands fall away, and I catch up my gourd before it can roll into the dust. For a little while, at least, he has been given a reprieve from torment, but I know it will return long before the sun sinks below the western sands. I am a coward. I am leaving him here to suffer. I cannot cut his bonds. I cannot defy the wishes of the leaders of the village. But I have defied the sun. Like him, I have defied the God of Death. I have given him water. At least I have done that.
I haul my old bones back up, clutching my staff with shaking hands. I am old. I am weary. The sun is too hot. As I trundle away from the cross-roads, a voice gives me pause. It is the voice of the pale-face, no longer taut with thirst. He speaks, and his words are hoarse and strangely accented, but fair and clear. He honours me by speaking in my own language.