The sunlight is pale through the haze, though its potency is not diminished by the sodden layer of air beneath. It seems almost to weigh down upon the earth, thickening to a mist that hovers just above the jungle floor. It’s the first thing I notice as I wake with the rest, yawn and stretch loosely. Everyone is slow and languid in the heat. I put my head back down to the ground and roll to the other side. No hurry. Leader is up, checking and inspecting, but there is no urgency in his manner. And the world seems calm at this moment, as if it were a safe and reasonable place to be.
I soon get up myself and have a look around. Everything seems the same, no signs of anyone but us. It's already too hot for much activity, my tongue and throat are dry despite the clammy air. I make my way to the stream with a few others. Thirst burns oddly in the midst of such plenty. We have to wait for the children and the guardians to be done, we all bow to this inescapable logic. I watch and try to remember what it was to be so young, to feel, for a few short years, some measure of safety and security. Then they are finished, they go back to their secret and protected camp. I drink, I am full, and I return to the clearing and the rest of the Tribe.
Everyone else is up now. Leader is sitting under a tree at the edge of the clearing with his circle, their bodies in loose configurations that follow the contour of the ground. We make little noise despite our numbers, nothing to disturb the mysterious rhythms of the forest around us.
I'm a neutral, more or less, not belonging to any of the cliques that exist within the Tribe and not important enough for anyone to care. Still, my longevity alone brings me a certain measure of respect. We mill about the clearing aimlessly, drained of purpose by the light of day. I have the opportunity to keep up my many contacts. I make the rounds. Nothing is out of place, in fact, little is happening at all that I can make out. My reflexes loosen little by little, my mind begins to wander, until I begin to think I might allow myself a little quiet.
There are some scraps scattered on the ground over towards the stream. I leave the Tribe behind a row of trees to gnaw on a few old bones, at least to fill my mouth with the taste and perhaps trick my belly into appeasement. My teeth scrape on the hard surface. It's the only irregular sound to pierce the thick heat. Thorough and methodical, it is quite some time before I have to admit they are no longer worth the effort. My tongue licks the surface over and over though the last hint of flavour has long since disappeared. Than they fly in an arc from my and hand and land with a thump a short distance away.
I sit up for a moment to check on the rest. Still quiet, little motion or communication between them. I fall forward on my stomach on a stretch of voluptuous emerald. A sharp edge nudges my ribs from underneath and I reach to grasp the rough shape. I examine it with a habitual carefulness. It is stone, or something like stone, reddish, with one side unnaturally smooth. There's one sharp corner and the rest is broken off. Curious now, I turn it over and over. What is it I can recall, something Leader once told me? A strange word I just can't remember, but I know this is very old. He says that this kind of stone was used to build a shelter, although exactly how I can't picture. Something big and square, with these sharp corners. Stones are heavy, you would need many workers and many days to build a shelter with them. Days to build shelter, and then how would you move it if the Others come? And what holds the stones together? I can only see the un-squared shapes of trees and vines and bushes around me. Even the shelters the farming tribes build, where they stay forever, they have nothing that looks like this. Curious. And then I throw it away. Too bad it wasn't a knife or even part of a blade, or any other of the metal tools and parts you can sometimes find. Something I could have used. It falls with a thump not far away, to be swallowed up again in the earth's memory.
There is an ant struggling slowly out of the undergrowth, tripping over a blade of grass and tumbling back down. Then he appears again, ready to push on, determined to prevail over this world that has made everything so difficult. My head rolls slack to one side as the humming in the grass fades away.
I am running in the half-light with my brothers and sisters, we make little noise except for an eerie and subdued shuffling over the ground. Moonlight streams on me suddenly through the trees and I am struck by a wave of panic. I am exposed, separate from the rest, and I speed on to leave the patch of light behind me.
Waiting out the day...
Leader's form threads in and out of the darkness ahead of me. He moves tensely, his face a hard impenetrable mask. It flashes in profile and I shiver in another wave of panic. The Others are near, I feel sure. Maybe we have already crossed into their territory. I can see nothing on either side except the flitting shapes of the jungle and the movement of my tribemates. I imagine the Others, running as we are, hunting down traces of my own kind. Cries of triumph and excitement. Not so very different from us. I run on in the shadows.
Loud angry noises, and I raise my head from the ground with a jerk. My mind races for a second to identify. It's two of our own, two of the younger voices. They are shrill with pent-up rage, hurling sharply honed insults at each other.
I relax fractionally and rise to my feet, though still attentive, the muscles in my neck still rigid. Back into the clearing, I join the circle of watchers, ringed as we are in turn by the twisted and tortuous shapes of black trees that frame the clearing. We observe the two fighting with watchful interest; it does not concern us directly. The very sounds they make send harsh waves through the atmosphere, command attention.
They circle each other now. Tension vibrates in the short distance between them. One lunges violently across that space and strikes the other heavily. Then they are a blur of jagged motion and sounds of exertion. The fight spills over the area, claiming a larger and larger circumference. I stare intently without moving, my heart thumps audibly against my ribcage, the sound is echoed in a blow or fall to the ground. None of the others joins in, not as yet. Most of us have outgrown this youthful hotheadedness, exchanged it for a more slowly steaming rage.
Leader gets up and walks towards the little maelstrom. He seems grim but not tense, in command of the situation. Closer and closer, he watches one and then the other. The excitement drains from the rest of the Tribe before he has even acted. Then his arm shoots out quickly, swatting them both with one blow.
They are abruptly still. The cries die from their lips, though their eyes are still locked in glowing hatred. Leader makes no sound. He pauses for a moment and then turns away again, and the two retire stiffly to opposite sides of the clearing.
I could move easily again, but think it better to stay close to the rest of the Tribe for the remainder of the day. It's the heat and these endless days of buried tension that occasionally bubble up over the surface. But I have seen many such stretches in these long years. I am one of the older ones now, a loner and a skillful maneuverer. Even Leader acknowledges this, affords me a nod of respect. Leader is a loner too, despite his hangers-on. We spend the afternoon split into sullen groups that lounge desultory in the shade, given over to idle words that do not touch the loose currents that run between us.
Late in the afternoon, two scouts slip back into camp. They rush to Leader and he speaks with them alone at first, taking the two aside under a huge black tree. Then he calls over his lieutenant. The four of them speak urgently, quietly, as the rest of us watch. They finish speaking and Leader turns to face the clearing. He looks around, then nods. People are sitting up, whispering to each other.
An unspoken echo rings off the dark edges of my heart as the day wears to its close. It travels from one end of the clearing to the other, increasing in intensity with each contribution, in hushed conversation and significant looks. It unifies the group that hides beneath the individual. A breeze springs up out of nowhere, the sun is already glittering through the trees, low to the west. There is a space of calm, or something very nearly like calm, marred only by the watchful posture of my body and the odd angle of my neck against the tree trunk. My muscles tense to relieve the pressure now and then. A dull ache means very little, drowned as it is by the hollow of my belly and these shifting anxieties.
Then something stirs again through the Tribe. We seem to contract around the centre for a second, around Leader, though he himself has not yet moved. We fill the clearing, the circle solidifying from the outside first, each new wave drawing closer in. Leader is isolated, as hard and still as stone. Then at last, when it is almost unbearable, Leader stands up and it is time.
The hunt begins...
We pause for a split-second and then melt into the trees, out of the clearing, spread wide but fairly thickly over the jungle floor. Quiet and watchful now, eyes open, senses wide to any hint of direction. My blood sings with the rest, just away from Leader and the centre of the Tribe. Forwards, we cut cleanly ahead through the long shadows. And the long grasses stroke us in supplication as we go past, yielding to our advance.
A ripple of excitement from one end to the other, and a stiffening from the centre outwards. A soft cry signals that the trail has been found. Direction is now defined. The Others almost materialize out of the air around us, growing more and more palpable with each step. I can no longer see clearly enough to distinguish the features of the one beside me. But looking isn't necessary, I fix my face straight ahead and feel as we pass over the jungle floor like a shadow.
Another shiver strikes us, then a brief pause, from the front now. Charged with new certainty, our shape is more hard-edged and compressed. Stomach taut, senses taut with hunger for still another sign.
Then I myself come upon one, a branch broken to mark a path. So close to our camp, they must have been looking for us. The Others. My breath catches sharply, I feel the shock waves spreading out. I cry out at the intensity, to signal the Tribe. The bitten back sound echoes hollow inside, feeding my hatred and firing my desire. I look over and see Leader just turning towards me, that hard face and his glowing eyes, and his lips just barely curve into a thin smile. He looks at the branch and nods, and the message is passed along the lines swiftly. The instant is frozen into my memory, one moment separated from the rest.
We move much faster now, barely even touching the ground. A well-used trail opens before us. We are deathly silent in the moonlight, having only one mind and one purpose. A clearing, and more obvious signs of the Others. Leader pauses for a few moments to examine things more closely, and all eyes are fixed on him, unblinking, muscles tensed in inactivity.
We move on again, more slowly, careful in stealth and knotted in unreleased emotion. And days pass, and years and then centuries, still I go forward with the rest, over the same blades of grass, sticks and pebbles, under the same hanging branches. The moon glows sharp and clear overhead.
Then it all comes to a shuddering halt and in the thin night air come the sounds we have strained for, the crackling of a fire, the low murmur of voices. Down close and hugging the ground, to encircle and ensnare. I can see the fire dance behind the dark shadows of leaves and see their movements as they pass in front of its flames. I go with Leader around to the far side, until we meet our own and complete the circle. Then Leader goes forward towards the fire and I am only marginally behind him. I look over his shoulder at the Others' faces as a few begin to hear the sound of stealth over the grass. One of the older ones already tightens his grip on his weapon and I see from the shadows, look straight into his face in that split-second as the Other feels our presence so near while the younger ones still talk and sit relaxed around the fire.
We stand suddenly in the dancing half-light. The shock is audible, the Others scramble for their weapons in blind terror - knives, blackened shards of metal, old tools and blades that they have scavenged from the past. I feel my throat close as I imagine the fear. But then my arm stiffens and the curve of my own blade glints in menace.
I step past Leader who stand aloof now from the play, his eyes dark with thirst as the rest of us close in. I move towards the older one I noticed before, the old one. I see my own face reflected in the Other's eyes, I nearly lose myself in the distorted vision. The clamour and cries of violence dull into the background for a long moment. Then the eyes blink and my reflection is gone, I taste the Other's fear and defiance.
In a silver arc matched with red, the cut is shallow and deliberately so, yet the Other lunges fiercely like one who will not be toyed with. His blow is deflected, weapon sent clattering to the ground, and I slice into the Other's flesh again. A long thin strip of red that drips over the grass. I smile now, each breath I take draws the Other's strength for my own, and I dart a glance around at the rest. Most of the Others are already dead, a tangle of torn flesh and blood spilled on the ground. All eyes are turned to me for the last kill, my heart races.
The Other's face is wild. He breaks away violently and stands free in our midst, his hatred burns and heats us. The Other makes straight for me, rage pointed at his humiliation. The Tribe backs away a step, and we are alone in the circle of flickering light. The Other has a knife again, from somewhere, he holds it stiffly in front of him.
I am icy cold in my certainty and I feel the night's wind encircle me here in the middle of the steaming undergrowth with a clear silvery light. I step forward, almost ignoring the Other, my blade sinks to the hilt in his shoulder. With a half-twist as I withdraw it, mirrored in the face that twists with pain. The Other falls weakly to his knees, weapon abandoned, as I move closer and closer still. I am poised, I can feel the Tribe around me in the dark, and then I lift my eyes over the Other's head to meet Leader's.
I take the Other’s hair in my hands and pull back his head roughly. He is too weak to struggle much. Leader comes towards us and I offer him the knife. Twice the blade flashes silver in the dark, I can feel the wind of it pass close to me. The blood spurts all over Leader as the Other’s head grows slack in my hands.
Then it comes up, first low but then growing to a fearsome howl, a cry of victory from the rest of the Tribe. I add my voice, then finally Leader his, as the jungle shivers in fear around us and the moon looks down with its bright eye through the darkness.