Keeping Warm – Part 16

Beelo awoke when he felt someone pull on his ear. He had not intended to sleep but he was still quite exhausted and sleep had taken over anyways. Beelo lifted his head from the back of the couch. His neck was sore and he rubbed it a bit.

Keelo stood on the couch next to Beelo, propped up with one hand on the back of the couch. The child smiled proudly at his father. Beelo realized that his son must have climbed up on his own. Beelo smiled when he remembered the tug on his ear. Beelo wasn’t sure if the boy had intended to wake him up or if Keelo had used his father’s ear in a moment of unsteady footing on the couch cushion.

Beelo took Keelo in his arms and held him close. He kissed the boy on the forehead and breathed deep the scent of his hair. The baby laughed and squealed. Beelo put the child down on the floor and Keelo tried to walk from the couch to the rocking chair. He made it halfway before falling on his hands and knees. Beelo smiled as he watched.

“Are you hungry,” Kintu asked from the kitchen. “Breakfast is ready.”

“I helped,” exclaimed Batu.

“I bet you did,” replied Beelo. “You’re a very good helper.”

Beelo rose from the couch. He stretched and yawned. He then walked into the kitchen to help carry the breakfast to the rug in the living room. Everyone sat on the rug, except for Tara. She always sat in the rocking chair.

Kintu handed out small plates. She reached for a tray covered with a towel. She pulled the towel back to reveal four short, ceramic bowls. The bowls held a bright pink souffle, colored and flavored by the berries of a plant with razor-sharp leaves. Each person got a small bowl. The children began eating the souffle with abandon. It was one of their favorite dishes and Kintu usually made it for dessert on a special day. This was quite a treat to eat it for breakfast. Kintu placed a few slices of cured sausage on each of the small plates as well as apple slices and a few pieces of cheese.

Beelo placed a piece of cheese on an apple slice and popped them both in his mouth.

“Eeew,” said Batu.

“Ew,” imitated Keelo.

Beelo winked at his kids and chewed with melodramatic pleasure.

Kintu stood from the rug to bring food to Tara. Tara took her eyes off of the fireplace long enough to take the plate of food in her hands but her gaze returned to the flame and the food remained uneaten on her plate. Kintu brushed the woman’s face with the back of her hand and returned to the rug.

Batu had finished her souffle, the apples, and the cheese. Keelo had eaten most of his souffle. Some of it was smeared all over his face and the rest was in crumbs on the floor. The boy was busy gnawing on a slice of apple and a slice of cheese at the same time but his lack of teeth made it difficult.

Beelo finished his plate of food and started to eat the souffle. He had eaten half of it when he saw Batu. She watched him take each delicious bite. When she licked her lips, Beelo couldn’t take it anymore. He cut the remainder of his souffle in half with his spoon. He dropped half into Keelo’s bowl and handed what remained to his daughter. Beelo smiled at the look of delight on Batu’s face. Keelo looked at the pink treat and then at the mushy cheese and apple in his hands. He contemplated the half-eaten slices for a moment, then tossed them roughly to his plate, and picked up the berry souffle. He growled like a hungry wolf pup as he shoved the pink confection into his mouth.

Beelo laughed and looked at Kintu. She smiled at him and winked. Then, she pointed to the tray. There was one more souffle hidden beneath the towel. She held a finger to her mouth and her lips mimed a shushing sound. She smiled again and her eyes shone as she did.

Beelo could not help feeling overwhelmed when Kintu looked at him like that. He never understood why Kintu loved him. Beelo was not the fastest or strongest. He had never been very social and spent more time studying or taking care of his little brother than at play like most of his peers. What Beelo didn’t know was that those were some of the reasons Kintu fell in love with him.

Beelo and Baro were made orphans when Beelo was too young for a young Téchni to live on his own, let alone take care of a younger sibling. The elders suggested the two move in with another family but there were none with room for two boys. Beelo insisted that he could take care of his brother and their doma. He made a passionate plea before the council and the entire village. The elders reluctantly agreed.

Kintu lived in a doma not far from Beelo. She watched every day as Beelo walked his brother to the center of the village, sometimes carrying the smaller boy on his back. Beelo attended lessons with his peer group, but left halfway through the day to work with the adults to learn the skills he would need to support his little family. Beelo learned quickly and nearly everyone was amazed to watch him become an adult in the eyes of the village a full two years early. Everyone but Kintu.

Kintu saw the look in Beelo’s eyes when he pleaded with the council to stay in his family’s doma. She saw the patience and tenderness he had with Baro, even when the younger boy was willful and difficult. She saw the determination on his face when he learned from the adults and ignored the taunts from his peers. She knew then that he would be a good father and a good husband.

Beelo knew Kintu his whole life. They attended lessons together and Beelo was particularly close to Kintu’s grandmother, Maya, who taught the children cooking and nutrition. Beelo paid extra close attention to Maya’s classes, not only because he found he enjoyed cooking, but also because he had to learn how to prepare food for his little brother. Baro had so much more growing to do and Beelo wanted to make sure his little brother’s body and brain were well fed.

Towards the end of one summer, Maya fell ill. Beelo spent what little extra time he had at Kintu’s doma. Beelo and Kintu took turns caring for Maya and during that time, they talked. Beelo found he could talk to Kintu about anything. This was new to Beelo. He had no problem discussing with his peers any of the topics of their lessons, but he was never comfortable talking about his thoughts and feelings.

Maya overcame her illness and he no longer had an excuse to come to Kintu’s doma. However, Beelo continued to spend his spare time with her. Kintu made him feel comfortable and listened to him. She chastised him when he was pigheaded and encouraged him when he was unsure. She made him a better person.

Beelo realized he was in love with Kintu one afternoon the following summer. He was working late at the glazing forge in the village center. She interrupted his work and he took off his leather work gloves. She took the gloves and ran. She was faster then him but somehow he caught up.

Kintu held the gloves behind her and walked backwards until she was stopped by the trunk of a tree. Beelo approached cautiously. He expected her to run off again. She stayed where she was and Beelo got close enough to reach behind her to get his gloves. He was so close he could smell her hair. Her breath came fast and Beelo swore he could hear her heart as it thumped in her chest. Kintu gave him a sly smile and Beelo forgot about his gloves. All he could think about was kissing her lips. So he did.

“Beelo,” Kintu said and broke him from his reverie. “Will you help me take the dishes to the sink?”

Beelo nodded and collected the dishes. They walked together to the kitchen. After they set the dishes on the counter, Kintu reached under the towel and retrieved the extra souffle. She held it out to her husband. The pastry looked amazing but all Beelo wanted in that moment was to kiss his wife. So he did.

Keeping Warm – Part 14

Ona looked Beelo up and down again. He sniffed, then he turned and walked towards the enormous doma tree.

Naru smiled at Beelo and jerked her head towards the tree. Beelo started to follow the strange old man.

Naru stayed behind and surveyed the forest for a moment. She looked up toward the sky and squinted into the green-tinged light that filtered down through the forest canopy. She took a deep breath in through her nose, held the fresh air in her lungs for a moment, and let it out slowly through her mouth in a soft hiss. Naru did this when it was difficult to keep calm. And she needed to keep calm.

Beelo was surprised at how quickly Ona moved. The old man didn’t seem to be hindered by his bent back and Beelo was soon covered in sweat with the effort of keeping up. They walked toward the gigantic tree but when they reached the trunk and the mat of soft moss that grew beneath, Ona veered to the left and began to walk counter-clockwise around base of the tree.

Beelo stumbled on some uneven ground and he looked down. The roots of the doma tree were so large that they created mounds and waves in the mossy surface. In some places, the roots were exposed and appeared like brown stones rising out of the green moss. Ona walked around one of these brown mounds and disappeared.

Beelo jogged up to where he last saw the old man and nearly fell into a large hole in the ground. The root next to him rose to Beelo’s chest and was shaped in an arch. Beneath the arch, there was an opening. It was a tunnel that slanted down, under the tree. The walls had been widened and stones set into the earth to create a staircase. Beelo stood at the top of the stairs and peered into the darkness. He saw and heard nothing. A touch on his shoulder nearly sent him tumbling into the void.

“Sorry,” Naru said. “I thought you heard me come up behind you.”

Beelo was a little dizzy.

“Nobody can hear you coming, mother,” he said.

Naru smiled at her son and said, “You should learn to walk more like me and less like Beerok. There’s a reason why Ona could hear us from a mile away.”

Naru gave Beelo a sarcastic look. Beelo stuck out his tongue and they both laughed.

“So,” Beelo said hesitantly. “Do we go down?”

“Yes, my son. We go down.”

Beelo stepped carefully onto the first step. It was solid but worn smooth from use. Beelo descended a few more steps and he could no longer see in front of him. He took a look over his shoulder and saw his mother silhouetted against the light flowing down from the surface. Beelo held his hands out to steady himself and he continued down. The steps widened as he went and after a few more steps, Beelo could only reach the wall on his right side.

Eventually, Beelo’s foot could not find another step down. The floor seemed to spread out in front of him but he could still not see. He walked on, following the wall with his right hand and bumped into something. He put his left hand down and found some sort of a high table. There was something on the table but Beelo couldn’t identify them by touch.

Beelo felt a draft of air as Naru walked up to his side. Her hand brushed his as she reached for what was on the table. Beelo heard a soft sliding sound and then a bang as something hit the table. A soft, blue light appeared and Beelo blinked while his eyes adjusted.

Naru held the light source next to her face and Beelo was relieved to see her sneaky half-smile. Beelo watched as she held the light higher and shook it a bit. The glow expanded substantially and pushed back the gloom enough that Beelo could look around.

The stairs landed in a room with a floor of paving stones. The walls of the room were hard earth, but on the far side there were two stone arches that held wooden doors, similar to the door to Beelo’s doma. Another door just like the first two was set on the third wall, perpendicular to the stairs.

Other than the table, there was no more furniture in the room except a bench, under which there were a few pairs of boots and upon which sat Ona. He had slipped on a pair of boots and waited impatiently for Beelo and Naru.

“You’ll probably want to put on a coat,” the old man said.

Beelo realized how cold it was in the subterranean space. Until just then, he had been kept warm by fear and excitement. All of a sudden, Beelo felt colder than he had ever been in his life. The skin on his arms turned to nut brown gooseflesh and he felt an ache in his feet as the paving stones robbed them of their warmth.

Beelo watched his mother turn back to the table and set down the light. On the wall next to the table, three brass spikes were pounded into the earth. On each spike hung a coat. They appeared to be made of buckskin and were the brown color of dead leaves.

Naru pulled two coats off of the wall and handed one to her son. Beelo watched his mother put her coat on and mimicked her. The coat was lined with thick, soft fur. He recognized it as once. A sudden vision of the lapina bleeding on the stone lake flashed through his mind. Beelo swallowed hard and buckled the fasteners in the front. The coat instantly made him warmer. The cozy feel of the fur calmed him and the image of the dying creature faded slowly away.

Naru crossed the floor to the bench and sat next to her uncle. She put a pair of boots on her feet and motioned to Beelo. Ona grunted as he rose from the bench and made room for Beelo. Naru handed her son a pair of boots and Beelo slipped them on his feet. The boots were lined with the same soft fur as the coat. Beelo had never worn anything on his feet before. It felt awkward to not be able to feel the ground but he was thankful for the insulation and the dull pain he felt a moment ago dissipated.

Ona cleared his throat and walked toward one of the doors. Beelo noticed he did not put on a coat.

“The cold does not effect me as it does you,” said the old man over his shoulder.

Beelo looked at his mother. Naru shrugged and gave him another half smile.

Ona walked up to the first door on the left. Beelo and Naru followed him. Now that he was closer, Beelo saw differences when between the door in front of him and the door of his doma. First, this door had a handle and latches on the outside. Second, the window was replaced with an opening. The opening was a little bigger than the window at home and was covered by heavy-gauge wire mesh, which was secured to the door with a ring of brass plate and eight heavy bolts. Wind whistled through the grate and Beelo could feel air pulling at his hair as it rushed into the opening.

Ona looked hard at Beelo. The old man reached for the handle and pulled on the heavy, wooden door. Naru stepped aside to allow it to open all the way and then stepped forward into the opening. She aimed her light into to the room. Ona stepped around her and went in. Naru followed him and hung the light from a hook in the low ceiling. The blue glow illuminated a large wooden table. On the table laid what appeared to be a pile of dark fabric. Beelo carefully approached the table. The  shadowy lump became a recognizable shape.

Beelo gasped and took two steps back. He missed the doorway and found himself backed against the cold earthen wall.

“Beelo, it’s okay,” Naru said calmly. “The beast is dead. This is but a corpse.”

Beelo looked from the table to his mother and to the table again. To demonstrate it was safe, Ona laid a hand on the inky hide. He pushed and shook the creature, which laid still after Ona removed his hand. Beelo took a deep breath in through his nose. The cold air stung his nostrils and burned his lungs on the way in but it warmed quickly as he held it in. He let the long breath out through pursed lips. The hissing sound of his escaping breath filled the room for a moment. The fog from Beelo’s warm breath carried away his fear.

Beelo took three steps forward and stood at the edge of the wooden table. He made his hands into fists and then opened them again. He repeated this a few times to work the blood into his hands which had gone numb from the cold. He lifted his right hand slowly, reached forward, and carefully placed his hand on the jet black hide of the dead slink.

Keeping Warm – Part 13

Beelo slowly opened his eyes. He sat up and noticed his blanket was on the floor and his pillow was drenched with sweat. It had not been a restful night. Short periods of fitful sleep were interrupted with nightmares. When he wasn’t asleep, Beelo had lain awake, afraid to fall asleep and be vulnerable to another terrible vision.

Now, it was morning and time to face what horror today brought.

Beelo swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He sat there with his elbows ons his knees and his face in his hands. He took a few deep breaths and considered climbing back into bed. He heard a rustle of fabric and a groan from the next bed. Beelo felt some relief that his little brother was not effected by his restless night.

Beelo rose, put on his clothes, and left the bedroom. He used the wall to steady himself on the way down the spiral staircase that led to the living room. As he padded down the last few steps, he could hear his parents talking.

“Are you sure it won’t be too much,” Beerok asked.

“He needs to see,” Naru answered. “When he sees that they are just another animal, he will be able to make sense of it.”

Beelo’s mother was methodical. Her scientific mind applied logic and order to the world around her. The Téchni marveled at the beauty and complexity of Naru’s glass and metalwork, but most did not realize the patterns were based on mathematic principals and their relative geometric shapes.

Beelo’s father was curious and creative. Beerok loved to find out how things worked and to improve them. His inventions were often created by copying something found in nature and adapting it to solve a problem in the village.

Naru and Beerok were polar opposites in may ways, but their differences complemented each other. What one lacked, the other had in abundance. However, these differences often led to heated conversations and disagreements. Beelo had never seen his parents fight, but their voices carried up the stairs when passions were high. Eventually, the heat would die down. An agreement or compromise would be reached and the couple would head to their bedroom to take part in other passionate endeavors.

“He was so shaken,” Beerok continued. “I am afraid of making it worse.”

Beelo peered around the wall at the bottom step and saw his mother approach her husband. Beelo watched as she put her hand on the side of his head and stroked his eyebrow with her thumb. She kissed him gently on the forehead.

“I know,” Baru said. “You are trying to protect him. If we could keep him sheltered in this tree his whole life and never make him face the darker aspects of life in this forest, that would be amazing.”

Naru sat next to her husband and he looked her in the eye. Beelo could see the fear in his father’s face. Beelo could also see the determination in his mother’s eyes.

Naru took a deep breath and continued, “He doesn’t need to be sheltered. He needs to be prepared. What he saw yesterday was distant, surreal, and terrifying. What he sees today will be up close, logical, and reassuring.”

Beelo watched as the fear melted from Beerok’s face and his mouth set into a grim smile.

“You’re right,” admitted Beerok. “As usual.”

Beelo walked into the living room and his parents turned to him. They both smiled. Beelo already felt better.

After breakfast, Beelo and Naru made ready to leave. Beelo didn’t know where they were going, but they did not pack any food or gear. Naru picked up a small bag near the threshold put the strap over her shoulder so it rested on her back. Beerok pulled the latches and Baro pushed the door open. The four hugged each other and Beelo waved goodbye to his father and brother before he followed Naru down to the forest floor.

Naru waited for Beelo on the soft moss that surrounded their doma. She stood straight and the wind tossed her hair around her shoulders. Her green eyes shone in the morning sun. She looked at her son and her mouth curled slightly into a mischievous half smile. For many years after, this is how Beelo would remember his mother.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Beelo and Naru walked towards the center of the Téchni village. It was a short walk. The cool air and misty sunshine cleared Beelo’s head. He felt much better by they time they arrived.

There were no domas here, only open air shelters. Many held benches, tables, and fireplaces for cooking and working. Some shelters were built around equipment used to manufacture or repair.

It was still early, so nobody was about. Later in the morning, some of these shelters would be busy with young Téchni receiving lessons from older adults. The children learned everything from their elders. Education in language, biology, mathematics, and art laid the foundations on which the children would rely when they became adults and had to take care of their own family and provide for the village.

Naru led Beelo away from the village center, to the north. They passed the doma where one of Beelo’s friends lived. Beelo looked up towards the door in hope he could see her, but the door was closed and hidden by the curtain of moss.

Naru walked past what Beelo thought was the last doma in this direction. They continued farther north than Beelo had ever been. The northern forest grew thick with brambles and shrubs between the trees. Beelo followed Naru as she led him down a meandering path. It was barely more than a game trail and the thorny vegetation on either side threatened to cover it up forever.

After one final turn, Naru stopped and looked up. Beelo stood next to his mother and his eyes widened with awe. Before him stood the largest doma tree he had ever seen. It was easily twice as big as the one in which his family lived. High above the ground, Beelo could see where the trunks of the four composite trees had separated. Each trunk leaned away from each other. Beelo noticed they pointed to each of the cardinal directions.

Naru raised her hands to her mouth an cupped them into a megaphone. She whistled into her cupped hands. The piercing tone was so loud, Beelo clapped a hand over his left ear in pain. The whistle echoed off of the trunks of distant trees and a flight of birds were startled from a nearby bush.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

Beelo spun around in surprise. The voice came from an elderly Téchni who Beelo had never seen before. The old man’s back was bent slightly but he was sturdy on his feet and had no cane or crutch. Beelo figured the old man would be taller than Beerok if he stood up straight. The man’s skin was a deep brown and his face was wrinkled. It reminded Beelo how fingers looked when one has spent too much time in the bathtub.

“I heard you coming almost ten minutes ago,” the old man said with irritation in his voice.

Naru walked up to the old man and wrapped her arms around him. He looked annoyed, but he took a moment to pat Naru on the back before pushing her away.

“Okay, okay,” the old man said.

The wizened Téchni squinted and peered at Beelo. His gray eyes almost disappeared into the wrinkled, brown skin.

“He looks like his father,” said the man. “Poor kid.”

Naru threw a half-hearted punch at the old mans shoulder. He took it with a scowl and grunted.

“Beelo,” Naru said. “Meet my uncle Ona.”

Keeping Warm – Part 12

Beelo sat at the dinner table and looked at his plate. The steamed vegetables and spicy rice were gone. He had eaten them in a flash. However, he could not bring himself to cut into the loin chop. He stared at it. It was a slice of perfectly roasted meat and a creamy gravy made from the drippings had been poured over the top. On a normal day, Beelo’s plate would have been empty before the food had a chance to cool.

But today was not a normal day.

The trek back from Terramort took twice as long as the journey out. Beerok sensed that his son was shaken after what they saw in the crater and took a slower pace. They rested often. At every stop, Beerok would look at Beelo with a concerned look. He would ask the boy if he was okay.

“I’m fine,” Beelo would say.

It was nearly dark when they reached the stand of willows. The swaying, droopy branches struggled to welcome them home and Beelo was annoyed when he brushed them away from his face. When they approached their doma tree, Beelo was struck with a sudden heaviness. He looked up and dreaded the climb up to the hidden door of his home. The weight of what he saw today pulled at his shoulders. It curled around his waist like a belt made of heavy stone.

Beelo wished he could forget and return to the world he knew yesterday. He wasn’t sure he had the will to carry the memory of the slink, the dying lapina, and the smear of blood on the back rocks up into the warm safety of the doma. After some steadying breaths, he dragged himself and the dense feeling of his memories up to the door. His mother let them in and Beelo collapsed on the couch in front of the stove and stared at the little fire inside.

Beelo did not move until dinner. He was ravenously hungry and had devoured the rest of his plate. But he could not bring himself to cut into the meat. It was lapina. A slice from a roast, expertly prepared by his mother from the share of meat given to her by a neighbor earlier that day.

As Beelo considered the meat in front of him, he could not help but think of the sound made by the struggling lapina as it dragged its bleeding body away from the claws and jaws of the slink. He could not help but think about the blind ferocity of the slink as it reached into the searing sunlight in attempt to grasp the soft flesh of the lapina’s leg.

When Beelo thought about carving a bite with his knife, he was revolted. In his mind, the knife became a black, shiny claw. The slice of meat was no longer roasted and covered with gravy. It was alive. It quivered and strained beneath a coat of soft fur. He had to put the knife down before it fell from his hand.

The revulsion Beelo felt was not a moral quandary. All Téchni ate meat when it was available. He had always known, like all children were taught, that meat came from a living being. A living being that died to bring sustenance to the hunter, their family, their village. The Téchni taught children that the hunt was as necessary and natural for them as it was for the wolf or the eagle. It never seemed wrong. It hardly even seemed violent. Both hunter and prey had their place in the universe. It was a timeless contest, the biological compulsion to eat versus the desire to survive. Beelo did not feel bad for the creature that became his meal.

What caused Beelo to set his knife down was the connection he felt with the slink. Beelo couldn’t bring himself to be anything like that murderous black nightmare from the crater. Beelo pushed his plate back and felt relief when he saw that his hands still ended in thin, nimble fingers. His skin was still brown like clay. Beelo had half expected to see wide, muscular paws covered in inky, black hide. Beelo shivered and edged his chair back from the table.

“May I be excused,” he asked.

“Yes, little bug,” Beerok answered. “Go sit on the couch, your mother and I will join you as soon as the dishes are done.”

Naru and Beerok rose at the same time and began to gather the dishes. Before Naru could take Beelo’s plate, Baro grabbed the loin chop with his fingers and set it gleefully on his plate.

“More for me,” Baro exclaimed.

Beelo was glad he couldn’t see. He had no more desire to watch his brother eat than he did to see what the slink did to its prey after it pulled the lifeless animal into the shadowy passageway. He sank onto the couch and crossed his arms over his chest.

Beerok and Naru put the dishes into the sink and informed Baro that it was his turn to wash. Baro rolled his eyes as he chewed the last of the meat but he dutifully carried his plate to the sink and used water from the tap to clean the dishes and cookware.

Beelo didn’t look up from the fire when his mother sat next to him on the couch or when his father sat in the adjoining chair. He didn’t look up when his father started to talk.

“I’m sorry that you had to see that. When I took you to Terramort today, it was supposed to be a gentle introduction to the danger we face from the slink. We were supposed to see the landscape and,” Beerok paused to take a deep breath. “And maybe, just maybe see a slink as it darted from one hiding place to another. I never thought we’d witness one hunt and kill-”

Beelo shivered.

“Beelo,” Naru took over. “You had to know where our meat came from. The fact that animals die to feed other animals, to feed us and our neighbors, none of this could’ve been a surprise.”

Beelo’s vision shimmered. He squished his eyes shut in a vain attempt to keep the tears from falling. Fat drops rolled down from the corner of both eyes and hung from his jawline for a second before they dropped onto the front of his shirt. Beelo wiped his face with a sleeve of his shirt and sniffed.

“I know we are hunters,” Beelo spoke with a low, hoarse voice. “I know the Téchni are hunters. I know that I have eaten meat, that it was the flesh of a living creature, that it was the result of a hunt and that the creature died for me to have that meal.”

Beelo stopped to take a few slow breaths. He sniffed again and used his other sleeve to wipe his eyes again.

“But that slink wasn’t just hunting. The lapina wasn’t just trying to survive. It was more than that, worse than that.”

Naru put her hand on his knee and patted it. Beerok leaned forward in his chair. They both looked at their son with empathy. They tried to understand.

Beelo knew they didn’t. He wanted to say more. He wanted to tell them that what he saw happen in the crater shattered his notion of the world.

Until today, Beelo thought he understood his world. He had been taught the laws of nature. He was under the impression that if they were to live according these laws, the Téchni would continue to prosper and live happily in their trees.

After what he saw this afternoon, Beelo knew that wasn’t true. The scene of blood thirst and terror was an omen, a horrific sign of what was to come.

Keeping Warm – Part 11

Beelo stared with wide eyes at the landscape in front of him. Beerok placed a hand on Beelo’s shoulder to steady the boy. Beelo was grateful. It saved him from clutching his father’s hand like a frightened child.

They stood at the edge of a precipice. It looked as if an enormous gardener had stuck a trowel into the land and scooped it away. The fawn-colored stones of the hillside gave way to ones of varying shades of black. Even the soil was the color of charred wood. Beelo followed the perimeter of the crater with his eyes. It arced away to the north and south in nearly a perfect circle

Beerok shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun and peered into the depths. Beelo did the same but couldn’t make out very much detail until some high, gray clouds covered the sun.

Beelo saw that the edge of the cliff did not drop straight down but curved steeply. Dark, sharp scree on the slope guaranteed a treacherous descent and an impossible climb. The escarpment below them ended in a lake of black stone, the bleak hardness of which contrasted with the soft, pillow-like texture of the surface.

From the north shore of the lake rose a wall of stone. On careful inspection, Beelo realized the wall was more like a palisade, comprised of gray-black columns. Each column had eight straight edges. The columns stood closely together and formed a plateau the almost extended to the the opposite rim of the crater. In some places, the columns had fallen and the edge of the lake was littered with pieces of the ones that tumbled.

On the southern shore, small mesas jutted into the air like rotten molars. The spaces between the little islands of black earth were a labyrinth of gloomy passageways. Beelo shivered. Someone unlucky enough to walk through that place would get hopelessly lost. Hemmed in on either side by crumbling earth, you would be lucky to see the sky except at noon. Any attempt to find your bearings would be hopeless.

Beerok whispered into Beelo’s ear, “Do you see it?”

Beelo looked quizzically at him.

“There,” Beerok explained. He took his hand off of Beelo’s shoulder and pointed.

Beelo peered into the depressing darkness and tried to find what his father saw. At first he thought it was a trick. Beelo blinked, squinted, and then he saw it. Something was moved. A creature was tentatively creeping along the southern shore of the stone lake. From this distance it looked like a mouse, but Beelo knew it to be a lapina. From it’s stature and the awkward movements Beelo guessed it was young, maybe no more than a year old. Lapina were very important to the Téchni and Beelo had learned about them from his teachers in the community every summer.

“How did a lapina get down there,” asked Beelo.

“The young sometimes get too close to the edge when they graze and fall in. There is no way out,” answered Beerok. “But that is not what I was trying to show you.”

Beelo didn’t see it before it moved. It was nearly invisible since it’s hide was the same color as the soil and rocks around it. The slink pounced on the lapina’s back. The lapina screamed in pain and terror. It’s wobbly limbs failed to hold the combination of its own weight and that of its attacker and the animal collapsed to the stony floor. The lapina tossed its head from side to side and kicked its splayed legs furiously. It managed to crash the top of its skull into the nose of the slink and the dark creature drew back a little. That was opportunity enough for the lapina. The front legs planted and shoved the body up. The slink fell off of the furry, screaming creature and the lapina bounded forward on its powerful rear legs.

It did not get very far. Blood coursed from wounds on its sides and ran down the muscular rear legs. One wound pulsed blood, spurting in time to the lapina’s heartbeat. With each hop, the beat got slower and the gush of blood came with less force. The lapina took just one more step and fell to it’s knobby knees. It slumped forward, face first onto the hard, lumpy surface of the stone lake.

In the sky above, the cloud cover shifted. The early afternoon sun crept over the edge of the crater and illuminated the dying animal. A halo of light encompassed the lapina and shone dully on the blood-soaked stone around it.

The slink approached cautiously. It made absolutely no sound as it walked. The skin around the nostrils fluttered as it drew in air.

“The slits on the nose can be closed, like you close your eyes. We think it may be a way to keep out dirt while digging,” Beerok explained.

As the slink drew near, the lapina made a loud, plaintive whine. It was near to death, but still terrified of the beast that padded ever closer. The slink paused when it got near. Beelo thought the disgusting predator was having fun. He thought it enjoyed the horrific noise made by the lapina. Beelo continued to watch and realized the slink was not savoring the moment. It was being cautious.

The slink lifted an mottled, black paw. It extended its claws and reached for the hind leg of the lapina. The black talons shimmered in the sunlight. But when the skin of the slink’s paw came into the light, it drew back. The creature let out a gravelly chuff, followed by a short roar. It licked the offended skin and paced back and forth, just inside the shade.

“It,” wondered Beelo, “It can’t stand the sunlight?”

“Exactly,” said Beerok. “They never venture into direct sunlight, it causes them pain.”

Beelo watched breathlessly as the slink paced back and forth along the shadow’s edge. The terrifying predator got gradually closer when the movement of the sun pushed the shadows closer to the dying prey. Suddenly, the one spot of light in that depressing world went dark.

Another cloud had passed in front of the sun. The slink wasted no time. It pounced on the lapina, opened its massive jaws, and closed its horrible teeth on the back of the poor animal’s neck. The whining stopped in an instant. Beelo shivered as he watched the slink drag the broken body of the lapina towards one of the entrances to the labyrinth. The grisly pair disappeared into the dark, leaving only a smear of blood to show that anything had happened.

Keeping Warm – Part 10

Beelo woke the next day and as he got dressed, he noticed that Baro was watching him.

“Good morning,” Beelo said.

“Hi,” answered Baro. “I have one more question.”

“How could you possibly have more questions?”

“Did you see one?”

“One what?”

Baro rolled his eyes, certain that Beelo was playing stupid.

“You know,” Baro left the sentence hanging in the air.

Beelo was honestly confused. He had no idea what his brother hinted at.

“Did you see a slink?”

The question came out as a whisper.

“No, I didn’t,” Beelo answered and swallowed a lump that built in his throat.

Beelo waved to his little brother and went downstairs for breakfast.

The excitement he felt for today’s excursion was dampened. He ate more slowly than yesterday and his father noticed a lack of gusto compared to yesterday.

“Are you okay,” Beerok asked the boy.

“Yeah,” answered Beelo as he put the last bite of gruel in his mouth.

“If you’re not feeling well, we can do this tomorrow.”

“No, I’m fine. I’m ready.”

Beelo grabbed his bowl and his father’s dishes and brought them to the sink.

Naru was standing there, packing some food, water, and tea into a small travel bag. She took the dishes from Beelo, put them in the sink, and wiped her hands. She turned and took her son’s face in her hands.

“Whatever you’re worried about, just remember that you are out there with the second-most fearsome warrior of the Téchni,” Naru said. “You will be completely safe.”

Beelo looked questioningly at his mother, “Second-most fearsome?”

“Well, you were escorted yesterday by the most fierce.” Naru smiled.

“Today,” to finish her sentence she held up her hand with two fingers extended and then pointed at Beerok.

Beelo smiled and Naru winked at her son. Naru handed him the travel bag and Beerok headed to the door. Beelo turned to follow him and stopped to look over his shoulder at Naru. She smiled again and waved. Beelo met his father outside and they pushed the door closed before heading down to the ground.

Beerok patted his son on the back and took the travel bag from him.

“I’ll carry it on the way out, you carry it on the way back.”

Beelo smiled. He knew the bag would be empty on the way back and so did his father.

Beerok led them out into the forest, but he took a more direct route to the river than the wide arc Naru followed yesterday. They reached the river in a little more than an hour.

Beerok stooped and used his cupped hands to take a drink. Beelo did the same. The water was cold and Beelo was shocked at how it felt in his hands. However, the pace his father set was quick and Beelo was already sweating. The cold water felt good going down and Beelo gulped another handful.

“Take it easy,” Beerok said. “If you drink too much and we keep moving this fast, you’ll puke.”

Beelo laughed like he did when his mother had talked about diarrhea.

Beerok winked at his son and said, “Ready, little bug?”

Beelo nodded and followed his father. Beerok began to cross the river. He picked his steps carefully and looked for stones to step on so he didn’t slip and fall in the icy current. Beelo could not keep up and Beerok stopped on the far shore to watched with pride as the boy jumped from one stone to the next.

“In the spring, the water is so high you can’t cross by foot,” Beerok said as he reached down for one more handful of water. “The mountains shed their snow and cover all these stones with water higher than your head.”

Beelo turned and looked at the stones that just barely stuck out of the river. The idea that he would drown if he stood in the same spot in the spring made him feel uneasy.

“The water moves so fast that none of the Téchni can swim against the current. No animal can, except for the fish that swim upstream to spawn. By the autumn, the water is half as deep as it is now. Then, in winter, it freezes over and you can walk right on top of it.”

Beerok looked at Beelo with his eyebrows raised. Beelo took it to mean he was supposed to be impressed. He didn’t want to tell his father that Naru told him the same thing yesterday.

“Wow,” said Beelo.

Beerok jerked his head to the southwest.

“Let’s go.”

Beelo had to jog to keep up with his father’s pace. Beerok was taller and his long legs gave him a distinct advantage, especially when they left the stony riverbed behind and walked through tangled scrub brush. They left the scrub behind as they climbed. Beelo had trouble keeping up. Beerok noticed how the boy panted and he was about to suggest they rest for lunch when Beelo stumbled on root.

Beelo fell in the dirt and rolled onto his back, clutching his knee. Beerok approached and held his hand out. Beelo took it and let Beerok pull him to his feet. Beerok got down on one knee and inspected the scrape. It wasn’t bad and he figured Beelo wouldn’t even feel it in a few minutes. Beerok took the travel bag off his shoulder and set it on the ground. He looked up at his son.

“If we cut the leg off now, we can stop the infection from spreading to the rest of your body.”

Beelo’s eyes widened and then he saw his father smile. Beelo stuck out his tongue and Beerok laughed. Beelo remembered the way his father’s laugh would fill the doma. Out here in the open, it rang off of the cliffs and echoed back to them.

“Let’s eat,” Beerok said. “We only have a little farther to go and we’ll need our energy.”

They unpacked the travel bag and ate without talking. Beelo watched the distant river and Beerok kept his eyes to the west. Beelo turned his attention from the water to his father’s face. Beelo recognized the look that came over Beerok’s face when he was deep in thought and turned to see what held his father’s gaze. The place where they sat and ate was near the top of the slope. The crest of this rise was rocky and treeless. Beerok’s eyes seemed focused on the place where this ridge extended to the west and disappeared behind another downward turn.

“This next part,” Beerok started solemnly. “This next part of our walk will take us somewhere very dangerous.”

Beelo turned back to his father. Beerok looked Beelo in the eye. The laughter from earlier was gone. The man’s face was serious, almost stern. Beelo had never seen his father this way and it unsettled him.

“You will need to stay close and watch me carefully in case I give you a signal. It is better sometimes to be quiet and communicate with your eyes. Do you understand?”

Beelo nodded yes. He forced down a mouthful of bread with a hard swallow. He packed away the rest of the food. He knew he couldn’t eat any more even if he was still hungry.

Beerok rose to his feet. Beelo joined him and shouldered the travel bag. Beerok nodded and headed up to the top of the rise.

From this high point, Beelo could see the entire valley that cradled the river. If he looked carefully, he could see where the evergreens gave way to the willows. Beelo knew that if he could look just a little further he would be able to see the doma tree in which they lived. On the other side of the ridge, the ground sloped down again, but not very far. There were fields of grass and shrubs with a occasional small stands of trees.

Beerok walked carefully at the top of the ridgeline, which pointed due west. Beelo felt like he was walking on the branch of a massive tree. The world fell away from him on either side and he could feel something pulling on him. Something that would make him fall, if he let it.

After another half hour of walking, Beerok stopped and held his right hand up with fingers extended. Beelo froze where he stood. Beerok’s fingers bent to beckon the boy closer.

Beelo sidled up to his father and his breath was taken away by what he saw.

Keeping Warm – Part 9

Many years ago, Beelo reached the age where he could join his parents for excursions away from the doma and away from the Téchni village. On that summer morning, he would join his mother or his father for the day’s work instead of going to the village with the children.

Beelo had looked forward to this day and he could barely sleep the night before. His parents told him the news after dinner and he got ready for bed faster then ever before. When his mother opened the door to the bedroom he shared with his little brother Baro, she found Beelo sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed and ready for the day.

After breakfast, Beelo joined his mother, Naru, to range the forest. Beerok, Beelo’s father, waved goodbye and pulled the door closed as they began the climb to the forest floor. Beerok would keep an eye on Baro until it was time for the boy to go to the village. Another rule in their doma was that someone always needed to stay behind to lock the door. Baro would later wake to find his brother gone and would spend the entire day in jealous excitement.

When they reached the soft, mossy earth at the base of their tree, Naru squatted low and pointed to the ground. Beelo squatted next to her.

“This moss is only found at the base of a doma tree,” Naru said while poking the moss gently with her fingers. “To the untrained eye, it looks like any other kind of moss. But if you look closely, it’s different.”

Beelo looked closely. He had walked across this moss thousands of times, every summer and spring for as long as he could remember. In the autumn, when the huge leaves fell from the doma trees, the moss was hidden under their layers. In the winter time, it would also be under layers of snow. Beelo had never been outside in the winter so he could only imagine that was the case. He looked even closer and noticed something he never saw before. There was a pattern to the nodules, swirls of dark green and light green. Beelo stared in wonder as the pattern became more distinct. Then he looked at his mother with wide eyes and a wider smile.

“Like this moss, many things in the forest will seem to be the same. It’s only when you pay attention that you can see the differences.”

Naru stood and started to walk across the moss, away from the doma. Beelo took one more look and then jogged to catch up with his mother.

“There are red berries that grow on a bush with pointy leaves,” Naru spoke with a strong, but lyrical voice. When she told stories or gave lessons, Beelo often thought his mother almost sounded like she was singing.

“Those berries look delicious,” Naru continued, “and they are. However they will give you the worst diarrhea you will ever have.”

Naru turned to see Beelo cover his mouth to keep from laughing. She winked at him before turning back to her path through the trees.

“There is another bush, with pointy leaves that look almost the same as the first one. However, the points are sharp and will cut your fingers if you are not careful. The berries on this bush are red, but not as bright. They don’t look as tasty. But they are sweet as honey and you can eat hand-fulls of them without having to worry about loose bowels.”

Naru came to a stop at a stand of willow trees. The branches swayed in the summer breeze in the same way Naru’s hair did as it hung from a ribbon tied at the back of her head. Beelo sidled up to his mother. Through the willows, he could see an open meadow. Naru placed a hand on the back of the boy’s neck. Beelo opened his mouth to ask his mother a question but she squeezed his neck a bit and he shut his mouth instead.

A female deer ventured out into the meadow. She looked around, sniffed the air and then kicked at the ground with one of her front hooves. Two fawns bounded out of the thicket on the far side of the meadow. They awkwardly half-walked, half-stumbled to where their mother stood. Her eyes were focused on the willow trees, but to Beelo it looked like she stared straight at him and his mother. The doe’s ears swiveled back and forth and then she tipped her head down and munched on the soft grass at her hooves.

Beelo and Naru watched for some time until Naru gave Beelo’s neck another squeeze and motioned towards the south. As the two made their way past the meadow, Beelo stepped on a tree branch. The dry wood snapped under his weight and the crackling sound bounced off the tree trunks around him. Naru and Beelo turned towards the meadow and watched as the doe chased her little, awkward fawns back into the ticket. In seconds they were invisible.

Hours later, when Beelo and Naru returned to their doma, the sun had pretended to set behind the peak of Maternas and in another hour would set for real behind the western horizon. Baro was coming home from the village at the same time, escorted by a neighbor and her children. Baro waved goodbye to the neighbors and ran to his big brother. Beelo carried a bundle of sticks and shed antlers in one arm and a heavy sack of shiny rocks in the other. He dropped them both and took his brother by the shoulders.

“You’re going to love going out in the forest,” Beelo beamed.

“I can’t wait,” Baro exclaimed.

Baro grabbed the bag of stones and pretended it wasn’t too heavy as the three of them climbed their doma tree. Baro dropped the bag of stones in front of the door and performed the special knock only he used. The amber window darkened slightly. They heard the latches slide and the door opened slowly. Baro had to grab the bag and drag the heavy stones out of the way so the door could continue to open.

Beerok approached the three and put a hand out to his wife. She handed him a brace of pheasants she had snared earlier that afternoon. Beerok held out his other hand and she walked up to him. Beerok put his arm around Naru and he held her close while the boys ran into the house, leaving their bundles outside in the their excitement.

Beerok kissed Naru on the forehead and then on the lips. She smiled at him and then poked him in the ribs.

“Pheasant for dinner,” Beerok asked.

“And morels,” Naru answered as she dangled a small mesh sack in front of his face.

The grown ups ate dinner quietly as Baro interrogated Beelo. Beelo patiently answered and just when he thought there couldn’t possibly be more to ask, Baro would think of another question.

“Finish your dinner, Baro,” Beerok chided.

After dinner, dishes, and getting ready for bed, Beelo fell asleep after answering one last question from Baro. Baro actually had one more question to ask when he noticed his brother was snoring. He decided to save it for the next day.

Keeping Warm – Part 8

Beelo scrambled to the entryway. His legs felt heavy and he stumbled as he rounded the couch and nearly bumped into a side table. He took the step from from the living space to the entryway with some effort and grunted with the exertion as he raised his left hand above his head to disengage the upper latch. He stooped with his right hand on his knee, and pulled the lower latch free as well. He stood up, straightened his aching back, and pulled the door.

The door opened a crack and the winter wind whistled through the gap. Flecks of snow bounced off of Beelo’s forearms. He pulled again and the door opened further. He looked through the open space, into the blinding white light, and saw a hooded figure standing and waiting on the doorstep. Beelo realized he had not looked through the window and had violated one of the laws of their doma. Nobody was supposed to open the door without looking through the window, even if they heard the coded knock.

The hooded figure put a hand on the edge of the door, since there was no handle on the outside, and helped Beelo open the door a little further. The figure then stepped in and pulled the door shut against the blowing cold. The room went quiet just in time to hear the latches slide into place with a click and a soft pneumatic hiss. The figure lifted two gloved hands to its head and pulled the hood down to reveal long hair the color of dark honey.

Beelo’s heart pounded, thumping hard enough in his chest to make his vision pulse in time with each beat. He was simultaneously relieved and exasperated when he recognized his wife.

Kintu reached up and took off the mask. Her eyes blinked a few times and then settled on Beelo’s face.

“I forgot how uncomfortable these are,” she said as she held up the mask.

Beelo stepped up to Kintu and held her in his arms. The hide of the coat was cold on his bare arms and the snow stuck to it melted, making his clothes damp. He did not care.

“Beelo, please,” Kinto said. “I’d like to take this coat off. It smells in here and I could really use a bath.”

Beelo released his wife and helped her undo the fasteners on the front of the coat. Kintu shrugged off the heavy coat. Beelo took it and hung the coat on the peg next to the door. Next to the empty peg. He turned back to the living room to see Kintu standing in front of the fireplace, holding her hands out to the warmth.

“Where did you go,” Beelo asked.

Kintu looked at him and smiled.

“While you lay on my lap, you talked in your sleep. I haven’t heard you do that in years.”

Kintu glanced at Tara and then turned to Beelo.

“You kept talking about a lapina and how it was too heavy. I tried to ask you about it, but you would just repeat yourself.”

Beelo was overwhelmed by memories of the previous day. He remembered how followed game trails and ranged too far from home. He remembered the long trek back to the doma. He also remembered the sound he heard on the wind when he stopped at the rocky crest. The terrifying cry floated though his head and he got a chill.

“I waited for daylight,” Kintu went on, “and went outside to see what you were talking about. I found where you stashed the carcass. What an excellent–”

“Is that,” Beelo interrupted, “all that I said in my sleep?”

“No,” Kinto said. Her eyebrow drifted closer together with concern.

Beelo carefully made his way towards the fire place. His knees were wobbly and he sat on the couch. He reached up and took one of Kintu’s hands. He placed it on his cheek.

“No, you also said something about Terramort. You said, ‘Coming from Terramort.’”

Beelo swallowed. A sour taste had risen from his stomach at the mention of the dead lands.

Kintu squatted in front of Beelo and looked him in the eye. She didn’t like what she saw. It was not fear. Her husband was never scared. Even if he was afraid, it would be natural. Fear was a rational response to something dangerous. Beelo’s eyes did not look afraid. They looked haunted. Kintu knew from that look that something was wrong and Beelo felt he must do something about it.

Beelo smiled, but only the lower half of his face moved. He leaned forward and kissed Kintu on the lips.

“I was exhausted,” Beelo said dismissively. “Who knows what I was talking about?”

Kintu kissed him back. They both turned when they heard sounds coming from the back of the living room. Kintu stood and as their two children crept out of the passageway that led to the bedrooms.

Batu smiled and ran for her parents. Keelo took a few steps and fell. He then closed the rest of the distance on his hands and knees. Kintu sat next to Beelo on the couch and the two of them took turns to hug and kiss the children as they giggled.

Batu stopped laughing and put on a serious face. She looked at her father and pointed a finger at his chest.

“I didn’t get a good night kiss from you last night,” she scolded Beelo playfully.

“You’re right, little bug,” Beelo said and wrapped her in his arms. “I’ll just have to give you extra kisses today.”

Beelo began kissing her cheeks noisily. The little girl squirmed and tried halfheartedly to get away. Keelo squealed with laughter to see his sister tortured and clapped his hands together.

“Your father is still pretty tired,” Kintu said as she stood with Keelo on her hip. “And I know we’re all hungry. Let’s go make some breakfast.”

Kintu rolled out of Beelo’s grip, landed on the floor, and followed her mom to the kitchen. Keelo waved his hands at Beelo and Beelo waved back.

Beelo sat back into the couch. He glanced at Tara, who had ignored every one like she normally did. She looked at the fire and rocked her chair ever so slightly. Beelo followed her gaze to the flame that glowed and twisted behind the glass. A tiny wisp of smoke lifted from the tip of the orange tongue and disappeared quickly into the flue.

The smoke reminded Beelo of the night when his brother was taken and he wondered if that is why Tara stared at the flame. Did she watch the flame dance think about her husband? The slink? The burning leaves? Beelo’s memories of that autumn night mingled with the memory of the howl from last night’s trek. He closed his eyes and the thoughts swirled around his mind until he could smell smoke. The smoke brought forth another, older memory. Beelo felt himself sink into that memory. It enveloped him like tendrils of smoke.

Keeping Warm – Part 7

A sudden flash of light and heat struck Beelo in the face. He blinked and held his hand up. The light was soft, like the amber rays from the second setting of the sun but he had been in darkness for so long that it burned his eyes as if he looked into the sky at noon. The heat was nearly as powerful as the light. The warm air pushed against the hand Beelo held in front of his face and he could feel it bringing feeling back to his extremities. With feeling came pain and his fingers felt as if pricked by a hundred needles.

Beelo realized he was on his knees. He hadn’t noticed it until he felt hands under his arms and he looked up to see Kintu. He watched as she struggled to drag him through the doorway. Disoriented, Beelo felt like a child. His mind reeled and he was suddenly very little. He had fallen asleep in the living room while his father talked to his uncle. This happened often. Every time, Beelo would awaken slightly to the feeling of being lifted by someone larger and stronger as his father carried him up the stairs to bed.

Kintu managed to pull Beelo up to the entry way and she propped him up against the wall. Since she was no longer holding open the door, it slid shut with little noise until a solid click sounded from the latches as they were driven into place by the door’s mechanisms.

Kintu knelt in front of her husband and reached up to push the hood back and remove his mask. The hide was frozen stiff and would not move. Kintu went to work undoing the toggles that held the coat closed. After the last fastener was free, she opened the front and carefully slid the frozen shell from off of his shoulders. Beelo’s arms came free and fell lifelessly to his sides. She reached up and carefully lifted the mask from Beelo’s face. She felt resistance and realized the mask adhered to Beelo’s face and hair with frozen sweat and exhaled moisture.

“You were out much too long, my love,” Kintu said. Her voice cracked with a mixture of relief and worry.

Beelo squinted against the light and winced. The pins and needles of the awakened nerve endings mingled with the pain from the skin and hair that were pulled off with the mask. He had never been so tired. The effort required to hold his head up became too much and his chin slumped to his chest. Beelo’s eyelids dropped slowly and he began to snore.

Beelo awoke to the gentle sound of someone humming. He opened his eyes slowly and he was greeted by the dim light of his fireplace. All the other lights in the room were extinguished. In the glow of the firelight, he could see Tara in the rocking chair. She watched him, expressionless and motionless.

Beelo took a deep breath, the scent of tea and flowers filled his nostrils. He felt something brush his face like a fragrant feather. He looked up to see Kintu’s face framed with her long, bronze hair. Her mouth smiled as she continued to hum but her eyes were filled with worry and ringed with red from crying and lack of sleep.

Beelo looked down and noticed he lay on their couch. Kintu had a pillow on her lap where Beelo’s head rested. There was two heavy blankets over him and Kintu ran her slender fingers through his scruffy hair. Beelo tried to sit up but Kintu put a gentle hand on his chest.

“Please,” she said. “Rest here some more. Everything is okay, we are all safe now.”

Beelo let his head sink back into the pillow and Kintu resumed stroking his hair. Beelo listened to the humming and the whispering sound of the fireplace.

The next time Beelo opened his eyes, the living room was more brightly lit. The sun had risen. In Beelo’s doma, there were special ducts that ran from the upper branches to each living space. The top of the duct was fitted with a glass dome that collected light. The inside of each duct was polished to a mirror shine. The bottom end of each duct ended in a glass bulb filled with water and shiny metallic flakes, which scattered the sunlight over the room. The effect eliminated the need for candles or lanterns in the day time and made the doma feel open and airy.

This innovation was one of Kintu’s ideas. She and Beelo were due to help build some of these ducts for other domas this summer. Early last fall, Beelo and his brother made measurements and took careful notes so the right amount of materials could be obtained and some of the work could be prefabricated.

Beelo carefully sat up. The muscles in his back and shoulders ached. He tried to lift his hands to rub his eyes, but the weight of his arms was too much. Instead, he scrunched his eyes shut and blinked rapidly to displace the sleepy film that made everything blurry. The room was so quiet that Beelo thought it was empty. However, as his eyes cleared he could see Tara. She still sat in the rocking chair. She still watched him with a blank expression.

Beelo managed to sit up straight and stretch his aching back. Some of the strength returned to his shoulders and he managed to lift his arms above his head to continue the stretch. He yawned and looked around. Kintu was nowhere to be seen. Neither were the children.

Beelo stood on shaky legs. He took a halting step forward, then turned to look at the door. The two automatic latches were closed, but the third one was not. The third latch could only be done manually from the inside. He shifted his gaze to the coat hooks next to the doorway. One of them was always empty, since it used to hold his brother’s coat. Only this time, both hooks were empty.

“She waited for you.”

Beelo was so surprised to hear the words, his head spun around to see who spoke. The pain in his neck and shoulders was so intense he nearly had to sit down.

“She waited for you,” Tara said. “I thought you were gone. Gone like Baro. I told her you were gone. She didn’t believe me.”

Her words were toneless. Each phrase was spoken as if someone were reciting a list.

“She waited for you,” Tara continued. “I’ve been waiting, too. For Baro. But he is gone.”

Beelo opened his mouth to say something in return but he was interrupted by a noise. Someone tapped twice on the small window and then three times on the heavy, wooden door.

Keeping Warm – Part 6

For the Téchni, each season was dedicated to specific activities. Spring was for taking stock of things damaged by the winter wind and snows. Summers were for repair and for building new things. Autumn was for installing newly built things and otherwise preparing the domas for the cold. Winter was for sitting by the fire, sleeping in, and hunting big game.

When the snow deepened in the mountains, deer and elk would roam through the foothills into the forests in search of food. Lapinas, too, would head for lower elevations trees and shrubs had any leaves for the furry ungulates to eat. This migration brought animals close enough that the Téchni hunters could venture out for the day and use their finely-built bows and arrows to take down large animals. During the rest of the year, the only animals in the forest were squirrels or ground hogs. There was not much meat on them and their small hides were only good for children’s clothing, gloves, or moccasins.

Beelo hiked from the meadow to his doma and towed the carcass behind him. There was only fifteen minutes until sunset. Waiting so long for the beast to be in the perfect position took longer than he had expected. In fact, Beelo nearly gave up for the day before he found his quarry. Coming home late and walking in the dark was a risk, but bagging a lapina was worth it.

Only the best hunters were patient, quiet, and skilled enough to take down the large furry beasts and bringing one home was a cause for celebration and a source of pride. The lapina were not only prized because of the difficulty in taking one down. They were also valuable because their hides were used to make the special coats worn by the Téchni. The coats they wore while hunting and while watching for slinks. The skin was strong, but supple when prepared correctly. The fur, which was sewn on the inside of the coat, protected the wearer from the cold and kept their body heat inside, safe from detection by slinks and other animals with heat-sight.

Beelo trudged across the snow, accompanied by the soft scraping of the sled behind him. The only other sound was the occasional breeze as it whistled through the pine boughs. Beelo crested a rise which divided the range of evergreens from the deciduous forest of the willow and doma trees. The top of the rise was rocky and barren, which meant Beelo had to steer the sled around sharp stones that could tear the doma leaf sled and endanger his cargo.

It was as he steered around one such rock that Beelo heard a faint sound above the wind. He stopped walking and when the the sound of his sled and snowshoes ceased, Beelo was astonished by the oppressive silence. The wind gusted gently and he heard the sound again. It was a haunting wail, barely audible as if it had traveled a great distance to reach Beelo’s ears. Beelo lifted his mask and lowered his hood to better listen. Beelo strained his hearing and concentration. He felt compelled to identify the sound and from where it came. He realized he was trying to so hard to be quiet that he was had not breathed for a while. He felt  lightheaded. Beelo took a few deep breaths and was about to put his hood back up when he heard it again.

The plaintive, heartrending moan was louder this time but as it came to an end, there seemed to be a finality about it. Whatever the source, this was the last sound the creature would ever make. Beelo had at first tried to dismiss the sound as having come from an animal. Perhaps it was a wounded elk, disabled from a fight or a fall, which laid there and called out in pain. But Beelo knew the sounds of elk and the other animals of the forest and surrounding foothills. That wail did not come from an animal.

The alternative sent a chill through Beelo. He knew that if he followed barren ridge line of this rise to the west, it would lead him to the craggy hills the Téchni called Terramort. The dead lands. Rocky bluffs, cliffs, and caves spread for miles. There was no fresh water, no trees, and hardly any life. No life except the slinks. It was in this jagged, inhospitable landscape where the slink found shelter from the sun. It was to this dark, dangerous land they dragged their victims.

Another chill ran through Beelo’s core. The sky was much darker and the disk of the sun had almost completely disappeared behind Maternas. The horizon was a deep, reddish orange and Beelo knew he had only about five more minutes until all light would be gone. He had at least an hour’s hike before he reached the first of the doma trees and at least another hour before he came to his own tree.

He pulled up his hood and replaced the mask over his face. He checked his grip on the rawhide strap and set a quicker pace than before.

After an hour and a half, Beelo passed through a row of willow trees. Since the sun had set, the only light he had was from the stars. The Téchni had keen eyes and starlight on a cloudless winter night was just powerful enough that a keen-eyed hunter could avoid obstacles and see the outline of a tree a few paces away.

With some sadness, Beelo remembered a hunting trip a few years ago. He and his brother had spent all day stalking a pair of lapinas and were starting to run out of daylight. Baro was worried they would not find their way home in the dark and Beelo bragged he could find his way home from anywhere in the valley with his eyes closed. The two brothers made it home a full hour after sunset, but they had a cloudless sky of stars and a the light of a half moon to help them.

This night, the stars peeked furtively through the clouds. There was no moon. Beelo could have walked with his eyes closed for all the good the wan starlight did him. Branches swiped at his masked face and his snowshoes kept getting caught on the limbs of snowbound trees. He trudged on, relying more on instinct than eyesight. When he passed through one more grove of willows, Beelo was confronted with a familiar shape.

The vague outline of the trees that made his doma was unmistakable. Relief washed over Beelo and he suddenly felt the fatigue he had ignored all night. Although he was close to home, he still needed to stow the lapina carcass and climb to his door. It would take all his remaining energy to make it that far and still have the will to knock.

Beelo took a deep breath and trudged towards his home.