The moments of lucidity were rarer and rarer, but when they came, he regaled me with tales of swallowed teeth, basement brawls, and AIDS tests administered at midnight in ramshackle midtown health ... [+]
I sat staring deep into the flames, listening to voices stirring the wind around me. Soft footfalls pressed through the grass stalks, rustling gently. Though I couldn't see them, I knew they were there, as certain as death follows life. They had told me what I must do. They had sent me here to watch, to sit vigil, that I might join them.
A piece of charred wood, smoldering near the edge, cracked and sent sparks shooting into the sky. Though I started at the noise, I knew I must not turn. Though I felt their hot breath against my neck and my heartbeat in my chest, I knew I must never turn.
The carved wooden bowl from which I had drunk sat cupped within my hands, stained black with the sticky residue of generations. The bitter after-taste rested in the back of my throat and dried my mouth. My pulse came more quickly. Shapes moved stealthily through the darkness. I could feel the sweat on my forehead as it trickled, sliding down and stinging my eyes. I closed them tight. The firelight beat against me, rushing in my ears. Yesterday was beyond me now and I realized there was no going back.
Yesterday was when I told them I wanted to join them, to become one with the tribe. I'd already lived with them for months, observing. I had recorded their daily activities—me, with my recorder and my notebooks. I watched them rising in the morning and going to bed at night. I watched them bury their dead and strain and push to bring new life into the tribe. I ate what they ate and slept where they slept, hard against the ground. And though I contributed nothing, they took me in. But it had not been enough. The things about them that I didn't know would soon be mine—the things they had kept from me. So, now, this was my test, and I must atone for my presumption.
The chief was a tall dark man with orange-stained teeth and eyes that looked through me. When I had told him what I wanted, he had stared at me for a long time, and then smiled. Somehow, that smile had been a touch too wide.
After an age, he had nodded.
The firelight was roaring now. The smoke danced in front of my eyes, hiding the movements I could sense beyond. There were dreams stalking the long grasses behind me. Their presence prickled the hairs at the nape of my neck. Suddenly I didn't want to be here.
They took an eternity to prepare me for the ceremony. My body was daubed in color, red and black. My face was white. Black circles surrounded my eyes. My khaki clothes lay crumpled in a pile in the dust, forgotten. They draped a necklace of bones about my neck and around my waist. They wouldn't tell me what bones they were. Though the men were serious, the women looked at me sideways, grinned and giggled behind upraised hands.
And when they were done, they led me into the darkness, down the steep flat path to the plain below to sit among the tussocks of drying grass. They ringed me and they built the fire. As the flames leapt up into the evening air, they began to chant. They slipped the bowl into my hands and motioned me to drink. As I lifted the bowl, they watched intently. I tried to keep from grimacing when the bitter syrup slid into my mouth and sent thick needles through my tongue. Only when I had finished the contents and upturned the bowl to show them, did they sit back. Then, one by one, they stood and faded into the darkness.
The force of the light was pushing at me now. The heat was gone; so was the noise. Gradually other sounds crept in at the edges of my perceptions. I could see through the fire, through the flames, and there was someone standing there, watching. He grinned through the flickering light and pointed, then did a little dance. I didn't recognize him from the tribe. He made faces at me, then leapt high into the air. When he came down, he wasn't there. There was the taste of copper and ozone in the air, mixed with woodsmoke.
Desperately I looked around, searching for him. I stood, and the bowl tumbled from my lap, slowly circled in the dirt, and then came to a stop, face down. I strode around the fire to the place where he had stood, but there was nothing there. My heart pounding in my ears, I knelt, looking for a sign that there had been someone in that spot. Then, with one hand resting flat in the dust, I looked back through the flames.
Perhaps this was some child from the tribe, made up so I wouldn't recognize him, sent to test my resolve. But that did nothing to explain his disappearance. I peered around, trying to pierce the darkness and discover where he was hiding. I stood and brushed off my hand. I had to let them see I was equal to the task.
Suddenly, he was beside me again. This was no child. He was a tiny wrinkled man, grinning at me with orange teeth and yellow eyes from a face painted white. He gripped my arm and motioned toward the fire. I tried to back away, but his fingers on my arm were like a vice, and he pointed again. Slowly I turned to face the leaping flames. Deep in the heart of them, images were forming. The little man pulled me down to crouch beside him. He gestured to what was becoming solid in the coals. Powerless to do anything else, I watched.
Gradually the image cleared. A man stood there dressed in clothes from another time. He was speaking to someone. There was no sound. The picture faded and was replaced by a tribal group, going about their daily life. I could see the pride with which they bore themselves. I could see respect in the way they treated their land. But I didn't understand. I didn't know why I was being shown this. I frowned and tried to face the little man who crouched beside me, but he turned my face back to watch.
The image changed again. The tribe was still there, but now another had joined them. It was the man from before. He carried a rifle, and behind him was a wagon. Other men behind him unloaded crates from the wagon and carried them over to the man where he stood with his weapon and his clothes from another age. The man opened one of the crates and pulled out a bottle.
Slowly the image faded. This time it changed to a different scene. Two members of the tribe were arguing with each other. In the hand of one was a half-empty bottle. The first one shoved him in the chest, and he stumbled backward, falling flat. The bottle flew from his hands and smashed on the rocks behind him. He snarled, pushed himself to his feet, grabbed for a knife at his belt and rushed forward, red rage upon his face.
Scene followed scene, and though I tried to pull away, the little man beside me held me tight. I watched as the tribe was torn apart from within and I felt shame for what I saw. Finally, when I thought there could be no more, I tried to stand. My head was full of what I had seen. Surely, it was enough. I tried to swallow, but my throat was dry.
Things rustled through the grass in the darkness around me. Vague noises murmured through the shadows and sent a chill up my back. What was I doing here?
As I stared into the coals, another picture formed. It was the same one as before—the man with the crates—but somehow it was different. The man with the crates was me. He had my face. He reached down and opened the crate. Instead of a bottle, one after the other, he pulled out my recorder and my notebooks. He crouched in front of the tribe and started taking notes.
Then the pictures faded, and I was alone.
I didn't stand. I didn't sit. I crouched, staring at the fire until the noises around me faded and the fire died. I was still staring at the ashes when the morning sun painted the sky and shadows crept across the ground.
Later that day, I walked back to the tribe. I retrieved my clothing, gathered my things, and I left.
I burned my notebooks and my recordings.