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STEVEN

The black panther licked at the blood from his side. He sniffed. From beyond the thick smell of his own body there was a different scent. This was the pure aroma of violence. He heard the ululation of war from a truck roaring down the hill nearby, sensed the imminent conflict, but he was hurt and tired and looked away. All his senses closed in on himself, his pain, his blood, his breath. He lay there growling softly in distress – he couldn’t move, couldn’t help in any way, the ragged slash in his chest had seen to that. Every breath was pain, each pant an effort. In this fetid jungle gloom Steven could feel himself dying.

He watched the blood ooze from his skin, saw the beat of his heart in the ebb and flow of gore. His extremities were getting cold, he felt his energy fade, but only the faint flick of his tail betrayed his pain, that and the look in his eye. The effort of turning round was too much. Steven lay on his side on the ground and rested that proud head on some moss. He was still dazed from that powerful blast, the backwards tumble through the air, the crash as he hit the undergrowth, the thud as his head hit the ground. He wasn’t expecting such brute magic from the little boy. All he had seen was easy prey, a chance to get control, procure favour, gain the prize. Now his ambition had overreached him in a blast of wild force from an unexpected opponent.

Only a minute, no more, had passed since the blotched child had disappeared and the panther hit the jungle floor but already the forest was alive with the wonder of it all. The scream of birds and monkeys echoed round the trees, Steven knew that a hundred pairs of animal eyes were watching his last move. He turned one eye to face the sky, saw the edge of two black wings, death perched up in the trees, waiting for the end.

He groaned softly, a long slow purr of anguish and tried to send his thoughts away, for help, for comfort, guidance, in the extremity of his pain.

Zacharia up slowly and looked out to sea. He was crying. He could see. Shuffling through the wet sand he stumbled and slipped on sharp volcanic rocks as he walked abstractedly into the water. No matter. A wave nearly knocked him over, splashed his bare chest with bracing spray, made him gasp with sudden cold and realize where he was, what he was about to do. Without hesitation, with no thought to himself, he bent his knees and lowered his body into the water, kneeling there in the shallows, swaying to the rhythm of the tides.

Steven felt the cooling, salty water sting his animal flesh, heard the old man’s crooning from a distant place he didn’t know. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, gliding through space, dipping back into the clear blue space of nothing. Only the whispered words of an old man in the water kept him alive. He couldn’t get back to his body, he was too weak. He knew that if he lay here much longer it would be too late, could feel his strength sliding away as he watched the dull ooze of his own blood through the wound in the panther’s side. He longed to speak, to cry out in pain, but this was not the warrior’s way. He must wait, and hope, and trust in others.

The old man in the sea entered into Steven, took on his fight, his life, his distress. The surge of waves, the breath of wind on his face joined with the sharp pang of the panther’s agony in a symphony of torment. He needed all his strength to stay conscious, dug deep into his reservoir of special magic to weave this final spell.
The line down the centre of Zacharia’s back was bitter cold by now, that ancient spine had frozen in the sea. In his heart was a rip of purest pain glowing deep crimson in the night. Here, here was the centre, here was the place he must heal. The light in his eyes shone brighter as he began to chant those long-lost words, that song beyond the grave. Here he was at the worst extremity, the last point on the line, the spot from where he could not return, even with the final magic, the most powerful of all.

He steeled himself for battle, hardened his flesh against pain, took on the heart of the warrior as the chant continued. There, in the waves, he absorbed all the bitter depths of the sea, drew from the oceans the strength of the moon, then, when the very heart of the lunacy was inside him, when the great globe above was dulled of its lustre in deference to the great man below, then, and only then, did Zacharia start his spell.

Those chattering lips were suddenly stilled, a tidal force flowed through his limbs. From deep inside his heart of hearts the sacred words appeared and he spoke them with all his soul. He glowed dull purple in the water with courage, beamed a bright ray of light in the air, cast gossamer tentacles of silver around him and slowly rose out of the sea.

The panther’s head lifted slightly, a glint of fire in his eye, the frozen reflection of a flash of far-off lightning. Every movement of his ribs was pain to him, each breath a breath of flame. He hovered in the valley between life and death, uncertainly diving in and out of the beast’s body, re-entering the pain, then propelled back into the air as the extremity of his agony took hold. From a slight distance he saw the spasm wrack the panther’s body, saw the paws twitching, curling up in dismay, that mouth opening slowly in a last yawn of death, his eyes staring blankly at the sky.

 

Now he was floating gently through the village on a final flight of farewell, a sweet, slow progression of good-byes. There were his brothers sleeping, curled up together in a jumble of careless arms and legs. Two large dogs lay fast asleep, stretched out in luxury in between the young men, their stiff legs poking into the air. A thin stream of smoke flowed around them; the remnants of a tiny fire smoked their feet as he heard the soft rhythm of their breathing, the tiny snores and whimpers of brothers of the flesh.

Steven passed right through them, felt their sweat and smell on his skin, the tug of blood and familiarity seeping to his core. He saw their dreams as they lay there, simple dreams for simple lives, felt comforted here, in his heartlands, bathed in the warmth of family. In this, his moment of extremity, he found his heart again. His spirit swept through the walls of the relative’s huts, saw all the family sleep, passed through their hearts one last time, sadly floated out into the clearing, perched silently in the banyan tree and watched his father snore below.
The smoke blew softly around the old chief, tugged and pulled by a new sea breeze. Steven felt himself gliding, gently floating down towards the back of his father’s head, falling in slow motion into the body of his flesh, entering the old man’s mind as he slept.

“Father,” he whispered from the depths of the crazy man’s soul, “Father, I have come to say goodbye.” he said finally, an incredible weariness about his voice, an exhaustion that deepened it, made it rumble and growl across the coals. With an ineffable sense of destiny he sent his gaze into the dark, beyond the great central banyan tree.

The lunatic chief was instantly awake. His head was clear, the madness gone, those jumbled thoughts precise for a split-second of recognition, that vision of his missing son staring out at him from his heart.

“Steven…?” he said out loud, his voice full of care but his face betrayed his feelings and he merely stared vacantly into the ashes of the fire. The kava fumes swirled back into that addled head, the narcotic tug of the drug dragged him back into dementia. He was happy there – a Pacific Lear, a faulty, leaking brain-tap. The old man bickered with phantom friends, rambled and shouted his fractured monologue, screeched and gibbered and raged. Steven watched for a while then walked slowly over to the foot of the tree, stepped over the smaller curling roots that spread out in every direction from the base. He took a grip on an outstretched branch and began to climb high into the giant branches till he reached the bamboo tree house in the furthest cleft. It was perched there, a little thatched platform in the sky, barely three meters square, with open windows and leaky roof, a perfect look-out, a final throne.

This was the hut of old age and, as Steven reached the rough door he leant inside and grabbed a coil of rope and bamboo, threw it down to unravel as it went, stretching down a hundred feet to the clearing below, an ancient rope ladder bound together with twine.

“Father!” he called from his perch. “Father! Look here!”

From the depths of gibber and rave the old man heard his son shout, stopped, twitched suddenly and fidgeted as he listened to the air.

“Up here, father!” shouted Steven, and very, very slowly the old man looked up and into the branches above his head.

 

“It’s time.” he said softly.

Steven’s crazy father squinted, cocked one eye and tilted his head. “Steven? Is that you?”

“Come up! Come up here with me!” his son shouted.

Tears flooded into the old man’s eyes. “Steven? My dead son is back?” His back arched and he held out one skinny arm as his lips trembled and a great thin cry from his heart of hearts poured out. He noticed the ladder swaying there and placed one bare foot on the lowest rung, changed his weight and stood swinging there just inches from the jungle floor. He had already left the earth.

“Steven? My son? I’m sorry,” he whispered as he swung, “I’m sorry I let you down, boy.” There was silence from up above. “Steven? Are you there?”

 

And the old man took another faltering step up the rope ladder. His hands grasped feebly for the bamboo rungs, each stretch was pain, each step an effort, but there at the top, a hundred feet away, was the dim glow of his son. He continued his rambling apology, a muttered, pathetic drone, as he climbed the ladder to the house of old age. Somewhere deep inside himself he knew what he was doing but feebleness and the mind of a child took his fear away. He climbed even further, the rope ladder swaying wildly underneath him.

“Up here, father,” his son’s voice crooned. “It’s time to climb to the top. It’s time, father. One more step, old man, take another step, climb to the moon with me, father, climb to the moon.”

He looked down at his father and tears welled up in his eyes. Beads and Feathers were awake and silently watching their father’s final progress. They knew what was happening. Steven saw the old man’s hands groping towards him, stretch out, clasp the stick of bamboo and heave himself up one more painful step towards his son. The effort of climbing had quietened him down now, there was just a dull rasping as fresh breath tested ancient lungs. He was looking up at Steven, amazed. His kindly face had a new found strength that even the addled old man could see.

Steven glowed. When his father was close enough the son leant down and grabbed his bony wrist, lifted him easily up and over the edge and sat him down on the timber floor. His father sat there panting then raised one hand to stroke Steven’s face. “My son. My son came back,” he wheezed, and tears cascaded down his cheeks. His toothless lower gums were exposed as he wept and, in the dim moonlight, two huge shadows filled the sockets of his eyes. There was no fire left in his body.

“Father,” Steven spoke with deep sadness, a rich, masculine calm. “Father, it’s time.”

A look of confusion fled over the old man’s face, then a shudder wracked his body. He looked directly at his son and, in a distant echo of the vital, healthy chief he once was, pulled himself together and as regally as he could muster said coldly,

 

“I know that.”

He started to rave and babble and cry out with rage. He lashed out at Steven and when his arms were held and he was huddled into his son’s bare chest, held tight and warm and safe, then, and only then, did he cry for the loss of his life. Steven felt his father melt away – the old man’s head drooped listlessly on his scraggy chest, his frame crumbled in Steven’s grip, and he whispered, “We are all dead now.” Steven nuzzled his face into the back of his father’s neck and sadly murmured his reply.

Then he lifted his head to face the sky, tears smarting eyes that had seen too much, cradled the old man in his arms and waited till his father fell asleep. Then gently, very gently, he lay him down on the floor and covered the dreaming man with a blanket. He stood and looked down at the curled up figure, then leant over to grab the top of the ladder. His hands glowed red and the twine fell apart beneath them sending the ladder crashing through the leaves to the jungle floor below.

His father would stay here now, without food, water, contact or sympathy, high in an ancient banyan tree in the house of old age, the house of used lives. It was tradition. Then, when the glow went out, the youngest of his tree sons would climb his tomb and carry him back to his favorite fire, there to sit and rot and smoke till his soul had clambered up that listless path to the rim, had stood on the side and gone to meet the fire.

Steven looked back without emotion. That job was done. He braced himself and bent his knees, felt wind in feathers, leapt out of that tree and into the air. His brothers watched with heavy hearts as a huge black eagle swooped low over the clearing and headed for the Bay. He watched as three trucks swerved to a halt outside the wall, slid gracefully into the starry night as a wild mob of marauding warriors from Sulphur Bay descended on the startled brothers sitting alone by the coals. There was nothing he could do. He faced the moon and flew away.

Steven flew into the bright presence of 4i€. the old man on the point, hovering naked above the sea. He knew everything that had happened, knew that his life was nearly full. Knew that his pride had trapped his spirit, made a hostage of his soul. He was resigned. It was the warrior way.

 

He sensed a tunnel, a whirlpool dragging him into that painless light, glimpsed tubular sides, a thick cushioning air, a birth, a death, a flight. There, at a distance was Zacharia’s inner spirit, a power, a light in the sky. The sense of deep peace he felt was overwhelming. This death was not so bad, after all. Inside the light was a familiar voice, a softness borne of love, a phrase, a word, a touch of warmth as Steven felt the old man’s love.

‘Steven? Steven, hear me. You must go back to Sulphur Bay.”

For an instant the sea was lit up by five shafts of white lightning pouring their concentrated canon into the head and shoulders of the floating old man. From deep inside him there was the glow of molten lava, a bitch red fire of strength. Steven felt himself instantly healed, felt himself growing from a germ of consciousness to a whole man.

The panther lay dead in the forest. Steven was suddenly free but out of his body. He needed a new one. The silver tentacles closed around him and dragged that pod of life into the body of the shaman. With a radiant burst of white fire the shell of the old man fell away from around him, crumbled to dust as he watched. All his uncle’s wisdom passed to him, he felt it filling him up, pushing his brain sacks to bursting, stretching him, pulling the vertebrae apart, broadening his back. It was a strange, sudden maturity, a wisdom of years, a river of birth and death that belonged to someone else. Now it was his. He tumbled head-first into the ocean, gasped salt water and life, took a breath and dived exultantly into the sea, throwing his arms and shoulders out, feeling that strength as he pushed further down into the sea.

When he surfaced it was with a triumphal shout. He flicked his head from side to side, sending out a spray of salt water all around, then found his feet and walked back against the current into real life, his big blunt toes sinking hungrily into the sand.

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