So I spent the rest of the winter earning my place, for my father would never let me rest. He would kick me awake in the morning, shove a slab of steaming meat down my throat, set an axe in my hand, and push me in the back out into the blowing snow. I took three or four men with me each day, rotating them through so no man grew too tired except me. I worked until I could barely move, then I staggered back to the cave and sat very still by the fire. Usually I fell asleep there, and someone dragged me to my sleeping robes until I was kicked awake the next morning.
I have worked harder in my life, but not much harder. I laboured from before sunrise until long after its fall, and the thunk thunk thunk screech clash of my work filled both my waking and sleeping world. Still, I managed. I ached, but I managed. Under my buckskins, my flesh hardened into muscle as hard as the wood I worked. My skin was always gritty from dried sweat. My young beard grew ragged where frost split the ends. My hands grew strong and steady. I learned to swing an axe without any wasted motion or effort. I learned how to trim a tree to get the most usable kindling, and how to drag lumber through drifting snow as efficiently as possible. The Jazuz watched me work, and they approved of me.
It was about at this time that I gained my first wife. Her name was Pedj, and she came from a good family, the Reds, named thus because they dyed their hair red by some mysterious means that they kept to themselves. She had given birth to a baby boy the winter before, but he had not survived to see the spring. As for her husband, he had fled in despair from his dead son out into a winter storm. We never saw him again.
Widowed before her eighteenth year, her father, the patriarch of the Reds, offered her to me with a dowry of carved ivory bangles, necklaces, and bracelets. They wanted the chief’s children to be their kin. I was happy to have her, for she was a comely woman with a wry sense of humour and a laugh that set my heart at ease. Between you and me, dear listeners, she was also a wonderful lover.
She was my first, and she showed me the secrets of physical love with an openness and a generosity that still warms me even after thousands of years. How many young men have I heard tell about their first times with embarrassment and shame, or worse, false bravado? How many young women have I consoled after they went to their bridal bed a virgin, only to find their lover was a selfish, careless oaf?
That was not my experience with Pedj. She had discovered many things with her first husband, and she showed them to me patiently, carefully, only as my tired but willing anatomy would allow. Eventually I learned things from her that have made thousands of toes curl since. I loved Pedj. I love Pedj. Wherever she is now, I hope she’s happy.
Anyway, I should say that even though I was exhausted, I was happy, so happy. I saw myself through that long and terrible winter; the woodpile held out, thanks to my efforts. When spring finally came I served as the undisputed chief at Natt’s sky funeral, with Pedj beside me as my wife.
The Jazuz sky funeral is not unknown in this world even today: People who revere birds as we did still say that it makes no sense to burn or bury the dead. When the snows began to melt enough for us to journey to a nearby mountain top we erected a platform of wooden withies, and we set Natt’s frozen body upon it to melt. The platform was shoulder high off the ground, so no earthbound scavenger could devour him with their unworthy fangs. We would leave that for the glorious beaks of the birds, especially Jazi.
It was considered a great honour to be eaten by Jazi, and have a part of you fly through the sky with him forever. I intoned the sacred words along with my father, praying for that happy gift for our respected friend Natt. Pedj wept beside me, but not all the tears were mournful. We gave great honour to our fallen chief in committed Natt’s remains to the Sky God’s keeping, high on a mountain top beside a cliff overlooking the winter cave. It was what he would have wanted.
Years passed, and I grew up into what everyone said should have been the prime of my life. I lead the Jazuz well, fishing and hunting. Winters came and went. I kept the fires burning high and bright, as was my duty. I did everything a chief should do, everything, that is, except what a man must do: I never had any children.
People whispered in the light of those fires: Pedj had already proven herself to be fertile. What did it mean, for two healthy adults to lie together as often as we did with no baby to show for it? The problem could not lie with her. It must be my fault.
No other woman was offered to me as a second wife, for why did I need one if not to mother more children? I did not mind. I had Pedj. If I couldn’t give her a baby, but my people forgave me for it, for I ruled them as fairly and honestly as Natt had before me. Yes, they weighed me as a man, and they did not find me wanting for that one fault.
Everyone, that is, except my father.
Drew grew older too. His hair fell out, and his face dried out and withered, so that he couldn’t help but scowl for the deep lines embedded on either side of his narrow mouth. My mother died in her sleep the summer of my thirtieth year, and because we had the luxury of time in those long summer days of plenty we buried her in a ceremony worthy of a queen, though of course we didn’t have that word yet. We took her body up to a high bluff. We decorated her aerial bier with flowers, and we sang and danced for three days and nights until rigour mortis left her and her body finally relaxed into the final acceptance of death. We all lifted our faces to the sky and begged the sky god to come for her.
All of us, I should say, except my father. He never took his eyes of Pedj and I as he recited the sacred words. When the first Jazi eagle began to circle over the funeral, we all turned and walked away from the platform. I looked over my shoulder to see my father’s scowl. He scowled at me as if I were to blame for all his woes. I mistook it at the time for grief, but there was a plan forming behind that cruel mouth. In his younger years I would have called it a cunning plan, but old age had weakened my father’s wits. There was nothing cunning about the new designs taking shape in his tired, unhappy mind. His plan was monstrous. My father was a monster, though I did not know it then.
That night around the fire, Drew spoke simply to the Jazuz. “I am growing old. My beloved wife is dead now, and I am not long for this world,” No one murmured a protest, for he was among the eldest members of the clan by that time. “Who will be augur after I am gone?”
That surprised me, for since I was a young boy I had been told I would take my father’s place. Still, as chief I could not question my people’s augur in public. Someone else did, though.
“Why not Keer?”
“Keer is our chief, and he is a good one, but a chief needs an augur to confer with,” Drew said reasonably. I saw the people shift in their positions around the fire at this, but it made some sense to me: For as long as I had been alive, the chief and the augur had been two different people, two different opinions on what was right for the Jazuz. When my father was gone, did I not want someone to confer with? Would my people be better off if I was the only voice of official authority?
“Who do you recommend, father?”
“It is not who I recommend. Jazi knows who he wants,” Drew said. There were murmurs to that too. I could hear people whispering, and I felt the ground drop away from me in this situation. My father had something he wanted to say, and he was giving it the official endorsement of the sky god, something he did not often do blatantly since I became chief.
“Who does Jazi want?” Someone asked.
“Let me ask you, friends, who does Jazi want to be closer to? Who has he given a position of power, but has so far denied any blessings upon?” Drew looked around the fire. The Jazuz blinked, for no one had an answer. It didn’t sound like any of us.
“I don’t know,” I said at last.
“That is why Jazi doesn’t want you, Keer! You don’t know Jazi’s mind, even when the answer should be obvious to you!” His tone was shrill, and there were more murmurs around the fire, for it had been many years since the augur used such venom when speaking to the chief. Natt had still been alive when Drew had last spoke to the leader of the Jazuz as he would to a misbehaving child.
“Who then, old man?” I asked.
“Why, your wife, of course!”
All eyes turned to Pedj, and she sat bolt upright in surprise. “Me?”
“Oh, yes! Did Jazi not see fit to make you the chief’s wife? Have you not been the chief’s only wife for all these years? You are the most powerful of all the Jazuz’s women, and yet he has robbed you of the blessings of motherhood. He wants you to have a closer relationship with him, and in exchange, he will give you a son!”
Now there was uproar. Many questions were asked all at once, but I called for silence. “Jazi has told you this?” I asked. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. Jazi had some plan for Pedj? There was a supernatural explanation for my infertility? It was not my fault? This was heady stuff to a sterile man. In that moment, I wanted to believe.
“Of course! Jazi has always favoured Pedj. He was jealous of her first husband, and that is why he went mad. He is not jealous of you, the leader of his people, but he wants a closer relationship with Pedj. Let her be our new augur, and the sky god will give you the baby you have wanted all these years.”
It made sense to me. It made sense to a lot of people. I turned to my wife. “What do you think?”
“If… If it’s what Jazi wants…”
“Then it’s agreed! We will start tomorrow!” Drew announced, and so they did.
Pedj spent the long summer days wandering the hills and valleys with my father, learning the lore of Jazi. She spent the short nights with me, and we made love as often as we did as teenagers, for there was new hope now that we would be blessed with the baby Jazi had long denied us. Between our sessions of passion I asked her what my father was teaching her, but she was always vague about it. I did not press her: I was not to be the augur, after all. Sacred mysteries were to be her business, not mine.
Summer wore on into autumn, and Pedj’s monthly flow still arrived, as regular as the waxing moon. I began to get short-tempered with Drew at our council meetings, and, worse, I started to snap at Pedj. “Why isn’t Jazi giving us a baby?”
“I haven’t really joined with him yet,” was all that she would say.
She stopped dying her hair red, saying that Jazi didn’t like it.
“Does that mean you are communicating with him?”
“In a way…” was all that she would say.
I came to resent her distance. A divide formed between us, but I was helpless to close the gap. I began to lead my hunters out on long trips to gather in a winter store of meat, but really I did it so I would have some time apart from my wife. Many nights sleeping alone out on the steppe I had terrible dreams about her, but her hair was always crimson and scarlet in those dreams, as if she had not only found a way to dye her hair red again, but to obtain a more vivid shade than she had ever managed before. I would awake to find my face was wet with tears.
Then one day, one of my nightmares came true.
I was coming back to our summer camp at the base of a high cliff, and I heard a woman crying in anguish. I rushed up to her and asked what was wrong, and she said in a rush, “Oh, Keer, you must come see!”
She led me high up the side of the bluff, and there lay my Pedj. The leggings of her buckskins were around her ankles, and she seemed to have tripped and fallen. She had struck her temple against a rock, and her head and hair was covered in sticky red blood.
I rushed to her, but there was nothing to be done. She was dead. I ordered the woman who had led me to this place go to gather the clan, and then I carried my dear wife down to the stream at the base of the hill to clear her up before her sky burial.
I got her to the water, and for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to just dunk her in, clothes and all. Pedj was not a carcass to be washed. She was my wife, and what was worse, my last words to her had been harsh ones. I felt the need to be delicate with her, to be kind to her. As my eyes began to mist over, I gently removed her long-sleeved buckskin shirt and set it to one side, and then unhooked her leggings from around her ankles. Craddling her naked body across my lap, I knelt by the stream and cupped my hands in the cold water to wash her hair and face.
As I worked out the clotted blood, I wept, so that my eyes swam and I did not realize what I was seeing until she was clean again. Her skin was white as snow where her clothes had kept the sun from her, but that was not what finally arrested my attention. There were bruises, black and blue bruises, on her upper arms.
I blinked away the last of my tears, trying to think what these marks could be from. I reached out to touch them, and my fingers and thumb neatly lined up with the blotches. Someone had held her arm tight enough to leave a deep bruise? I placed my other hand over the other arm’s bruises. Both arms?
Then I saw it. I saw what must have happened. My father must have taken her somewhere, held her down, pulled down her breeches… She had gotten away from him, tried to run, tripped…
Then all I saw was red for a very long time. When I came out of my daze, the woman was back with some of my clansmen. I told them what had happened in a low monotone. They went as pale as my Pedj; one of the women wretched into the stream at the thought. The men ran back to their camp to fetch their spears. I showed the marks to everyone else, so no one would doubt me, and then I dressed my wife again.
I carried her in my arms up to the top of that cliff, the people of the Jazuz forming a procession behind me. My father stood at the top of the bluff, waiting.
“It is a terrible thing, Keer. She rejected Jazi. Let us pray that he does not turn his face away from his chosen clan.”
“I did not come up here to pray, Father.” My voice sounded hollow to me.
“What do you mean?”
“I came to make you answer for what you’ve done.” Still hollow, as if I were hearing an echo of myself speaking from the back of our winter cave.
“I? I have done nothing. Jazi has rejected Pedj as the new augur. She must have angered him in some way.” He held his hands up to the sky and bowed his head, reverently.
It was too much for me. When I spoke again I heard myself clearly, as if my ears had popped. I was shouting, “You did it! You forced yourself on my wife!”
He lifted his chin to look at me, but not a muscle in his face moved. I saw it then in his eyes: Not only was it true, but there was no remorse at all. His eyes were black as night, and there was no soul in them. “If you were ever going to have children, you would have done it by now, my boy. If you’re not man enough, then I am, and then some!”
The Jazuz behind me gasped. My mouth hung open too, but I slurred out a strangled, “What?”
Drew exploded now, waving his hands above his head at the sky as he should at me. “Do you think I wanted you to be chief so that you could have no children of your own? You are my prodigy: Where are your prodigy? Our line is supposed to rule the Jazuz for all eternity. Jazi wills it! Would you defy the sky god?”
It was my father’s most dire threat, but I still held my dead wife in my arms, and he was responsible for it. “If Jazi wants me to have children, there will be children. If I can’t do it, then it can’t be done! That is the sky god’s will!”
“Jazi wants grandchildren!” Drew screamed.
“Jazi’s grandchildren will be birds!” I shouted back.
“Fool! I am Jazi!”
I froze for a long moment, and then I set Pedj down on the ground between my father and I. “You’re Jazi?”
“Of course!” He said it, just as he always said, ‘of course.’ He said it as if it was painful to him how obvious it was, while the rest of us could not see it at all. “Of course I am Jazi, and Jazi rules the Jazuz. Jazi will always rule the Jazuz!”
We did not have a word for dynasty, but that is what my father envisioned. I knew then that he had wanted this since the Jazuz first came to our winter cave. He was supposed to be chief, and his son, and his grandson, and on and on, but always because of him, always for his glory. We did not have a word for god-king then either, but that is how he saw himself. He was Pharaoh and Caesar and Chinese Emperor before any of those things existed. He was mad. He believed apotheosis was real, and that he was the physical incarnation of god on Earth.
I had a sudden thought. “Natt didn’t die from a tree falling on him, did he father?”
My father laughed. He stood there, his back to the cliff, the sky above him, and he through out his arms to either side and laughed. “Of course not! Jazi waited for the false chief to grow weak, and then Jazi waited for the false chief to be alone, and then Jazi gave the false chief a little tap on the back of the head.”
“Then you chopped a tree down on top of him to make it look like an accident?”
“I am too old to be chief. It had to be you. They wouldn’t have chosen you without my support, and they wouldn’t have supported me if-—“
“If they knew you killed Natt.”
“It was Jazi’s will for him to die.”
I heard one of the women behind me cried out, and I held a hand behind me to keep the clan from rushing my father. “But you’re Jazi!” He just laughed again. “And Pedj? Why did she have to die?”
“She didn’t. It was her fault, not mine. She just had to let me father the baby you couldn’t give her. Her son would have grown to be chief, and his son after him, and they all would have been augurs, and the Jazuz would all have worshipped Jazi, Keer, but she ruined it! She wouldn’t believe her god, and then she ran away and hit her head. That’s all there is too it. It was an accident.”
“An accident? What happened to Jazi’s will?”
This time he had no answer for me. I turned to face my clansmen. “Are the Jazuz ruled by Jazi, or are they ruled by the Jazuz?”
This confused them, for I had been their leader since most of them were small. Drew did not give me a chance to clarify what I meant. “Have we not lived well under Jazi’s rule? Has there not always been meat, and fire, and medicine? Have we not always had a warm and dry place to sleep? That is because of me! That is because of Jazi!” He thumped his chest with his open palm.
“We would have had all of that without you, Drew,” I said.
“I am Jazi!” Spittle flew from his frothing lips.
“Jazi is a sky god. Jazi can fly,” I said, stepping over Pedj’s body so that I was eye to eye with him.
“I am the sky god! I am the eagle! I am Jazi!”
“And who am I?” I asked.
He blinked at me, not understanding. “You are Keer…”
“Yes I am,” I said. Then I took my father by the shoulder, spun him around, and I hurled him off the cliff.
Within my first lifetime I learned two important things that have always stayed with me: First, no man is a god on earth. I have better claim to it than most, but I am just a man, and so was my father. Men are just men, whatever they say.
Second, man cannot fly. My father believed he was an eagle, and if sheer belief was enough, he would have soared through the sky he claimed to rule. Instead he fell from a great height –from a Keer—- screaming in terror. I watched him fall for a long, long time, and then he splattered himself across the boulders at the base of the cliff.
I turned to my people and said, “Take care of my Pedj, and take care of each other.”
Then I climbed down to where he fell. I had to scoop up what was left of him with my hands and pour him a fistful at a time into a shallow grave. Yes, I buried him. I gave him to the worms instead of the birds. Then I walked away from the Jazuz, and I never heard of them again.