Artifact 9: Reaching in Numbness
The westerly, black-bellied clouds had yet to wet the gaping, sun-smeared mouth of the coliseum to the east, but the snorting mules dragged the clouds closer as they dragged the box carts filled with mottled pelts and polished, white bone. The men, hunters by birth, staggered down the slope beside them, ripe with last night’s campfire and the morning’s ascent, eyes flushing heat, slack mouths muttering exhaustion. The caravan skidded to a halt at the tree line as the road to the city leveled and the open farmland began.
The eldest hunter—a white-bearded brute named Proto—drank first, heavy slabs of old muscle flexing in his arms as he squeezed the leather, veins bulging above the shelf of his brow. He belched loudly and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smearing the dust on his cheek clear to his ear. He passed the leather down. The mules lapped last from the cupped palms of men who kneeled.
The city, entrenched deep within the valley, glowed golden at the center of the fields. Proto’s son—a lean, blond-haired man named Ander—stared over the wind-brushed wheat as he imagined his introduction to the city he’d only heard about in whispers for so many years. Proto stood behind him, gripping his shoulders, grinning proudly.
“Yes, my son.”
Exposure to the city was a rite of passage among the men of this family, as it was among most of the men in the hunting families. The women were not allowed. The men told them the mingling was too dangerous and the city was a place of excess, which it often was.
Long before Proto was born, the rumors of beautiful women, grand spectacles of violence, and strong mead had shredded the mountainsides with their claws as they blazed to the peaks and then burst, misting the minds of the simple, toiling men below. Men like Proto’s father.
“They are growing to be very different people,” Proto said to his wife before leaving on this latest excursion. “They speak oddly and worship strange gods, but offer fine goods in exchange for pelts and clean bone.”
Despite the inevitable evolution of all—an evolution that, within the city, spawned a game of mortality at the core of the coliseum and an incessant mockery of the heavens behind the doors of the temples—some men chose to remain in the wilderness, clinging to an innate honestly that fueled their hands to work and their lips to bend in perfect O’s as they howled at the sparkling spray that filled the night sky. Their marvel kept them small, but content. But for some, their honesty was tainted by the temptation of gluttony, paternal secrets passed down to eager sons. Sons like Ander.
The caravan of men and mule pushed alongside the wheat field. Farmers from the city, stooping amid the wheat, straightened to watch them pass. Proto waved, slowly. The nods of the farmers were barely discernable through the haze of dust and heat. Their bodies appeared to flicker and warp, inhuman. The caravan pushed on, the threshold of the city soon meeting them like a blow to the chest.
The massive coliseum—its belly sloshing with blood, its brazen mouth screeching to the heavens—struck them first. Then came the temples, their columns pointed like sharpened spears—another stony challenge to opposition, celestial or otherwise.
As the caravan neared the public square, broad smiles met their eyes as brightly dressed families bustled at kiosks, hocking their goods. The ears of the caravan filled with the light, fluttering sounds of a fairer breed, a breed of artists and craftspeople, a breed that had grown accustomed to living in a more fostering environment than that of the sweat-and-grunt forest, a place where the exploration of the depths of the heart, mind, and body were not simply condoned, but openly encouraged. Despite their variant dogma, this breed was not unfamiliar with the savage struggles of the wilderness.
Descendants of hunters, the city’s populace were taught to farm, and later manage, the sprawling fields that touched the city on all sides. Agriculture had allowed them to flourish, but it was something more that set them apart from those who still found simple comfort in crackling fires.
Although a progressive community, intent on cultivating themselves, each other, and the very land that surrounded them, they made no secret of their fondness for death and sex. It was as if the very creativity that released their minds also bound them, bringing doubt of their importance and place within the universe. This doubt made them defiant and resentful, a deadly combination that ushered excess.
To some of the hunters it was mortifying to glimpse the deviant couplings in the shadowed alleyways of the square (man on man, man on goat, goat on woman, man on woman watching man on goat on woman); to others it was exciting; to Proto is was thinly tolerated, an eye’s obstacle that needed to be overcome before reaching the harlots that danced pink and red along the fringe.
Proto tugged Ander by his sleeve, quietly scolding him for losing his focus. Ander, having been in the city mere minutes, had already been reprimanded several times for attempting to take that which did not belong to him.
“Even the fresh fruit,” admonished Proto, “is meant to be paid for in trade. Despite our strength, their numbers here far outweigh ours, and we must be mindful to respect their ways.”
Ander nodded, apologetically. Proto’s lips curled beside Ander’s ear. “Or we must be discreet,” he added.
He roughly shoved a fistful of pelts into Ander’s waistband and then slapped him on the shoulder, sending him stumbling toward a trio of women costumed as pixies.
“Go, my son!”
Ander fell into the women, laughing. They flashed diabolical smiles at Proto and the hunters, then dug their fingers into Ander’s arms, ripping him into the darkened alleyways behind the kiosks. They meant to show Ander their goods, and taste his, as their mothers had once done for Proto.
The hunters made their way around the square, savoring the excitement, the foreignness, the abundance of mead. Proto led the march with a newfound swagger, suddenly very full of pride, spirits, and himself. He stopped beside a kiosk to knot his mule to a post. The mule sucked water from a trough. A naked child spilled from behind the kiosk, pooling around Proto’s feet. A woman laughed. A man rushed over, bending.
“Come here, son,” the man said.
The boy stared up the length of Proto, mesmerized. Proto read the boy’s gaze as insolence, and kicked him off.
“Mind your child,” he slurred.
The man scooped up his whimpering son.
“There is no need…” The man trailed off, noticing that Proto openly admired something at his kiosk: a blade forged from steel and blackened bone. He set the naked boy back on the street, lazily swatting him in the direction of his mother.
“Something you like?”
“The knife and sheath,” said Proto, pointing. “Will you take two pelts in trade?”
The man scoffed at his offer, foolishly overestimating the restraint the visiting hunters were known to exercise.
Proto’s patience—worn thin by travel, mead, and the conflicting (and often grating) ideology of the city’s people and his own—frayed and then broke. He seized the man by the throat, crushing his scream, and then dragged him to the alleyway where he proceeded to rape him, first with his savageness, and then with the man’s own knife. The other hunters looked on, their thumbs shoved into the mouths of the woman and boy. When Proto finished with the man, he took the woman. Then the boy. Each hunter had his turn, raping with flesh first, then steel.
Proto’s mule defecated as he buried the broken family beneath the pelts of his cart.
On the other side of the city, Ander squeezed into the coliseum with a blue pixie at his side, blind to the dust and the sweltering heat; wide-eyed and vulnerable to the violence, blood, and mead. Below, tigers were showered with cheers as they tore hapless men to pieces.
Then the rains came.
The black-bellied clouds, having completed their journey eastward, tore open, wetting the bulging, red-faced spectators, the swooning hunters, and the naked children rolling on the street. The children’s small hands smeared the dust on their thighs and then swirled it, a muddy reflection of something they’d seen, or dreamed they’d seen, in the night sky. Their dark mouths shaped fragile, quivering O’s, faithless flesh holes hungry to be filled.
Mel Bosworth is the author of When the Cats Razzed the Chickens (Folded Word Press, 2009) Grease Stains, Kismet, and Maternal Wisdom (Aqueous Books, 2010) and Freight (coming May, 2011 from Folded Word Press). Mel lives, breathes, writes, and works in western Massachusetts.