“Is it time now?” asked Ecru as she crouched, her hands and knees beneath her, her head pushed forward in the tall grass, watching the village between the reeds.
Lying flat on his stomach, chin on the ground, aware of the village but not watching it, Brown replied, “No, I will tell you when it is time. You follow. You help with the gathering. Remember: follow.”
Brown wished that Ecru would unwind herself. A girl of fourteen on her first gathering, she was not yet able to surround what she was becoming, could not wrap sensuously about the space she was growing into. Her progress, yet lack of finish, was evident to everyone except herself, though within the coming year, the expectations of her village would match puzzle-piece with her own and a new physics would take spark.
They and the others were in the tall unbowed grass, but only a few yards from where it grew flat and trampled. The edge of any village always smells of playfully near things: of the evening’s fresh cooking once removed, of a dog not unlike the neighbor’s, of children playing too far from the narrow paths between comfortable buildings, of the untamed prey that wanders as close as it drearily can, until it cannot stand the enlarging smell of civilization any longer and shies back into the deep.
The raiding party heartily counted the whipping red, orange, and yellow streamers. There were more than many members in the raiding party had learned to acknowledge. Atop short poles, they flowed from their moorings, ribboned by the wind, in the rare moments of calm, touching the sacred ground beneath them or wrapping back onto their poles and sliding lazily against the hand smoothed outer finish.
Lights were going out in the village—candles here, lanterns there, the few electric beacons lasting longer, but seeming themselves to grow ever wearier.
Ecru knew that Brown, having himself gone on half a dozen raids, would be a good teacher. He would see that she went to the right spot, waited for the right signal, applied herself as though she were just one limb of this exercised animal. He would do that part of the thinking, for which she would be the stinging execution.
From her knot in the grass, she could see one member of their party crawl crab-like out onto the flattened grass. Another followed him half a body length later. They edged on hands and knees, backs swayed into spoons, the side-to-side motion of their hips exaggerated to keep their rear ends from rising too high in the thickening dark.
Quiet and stealth make for a raid: force is not our way. Ecru mouthed the mantra that Black had made her learn before she was ever put up for selection into a raiding party. She liked the feel of it on her lips, the taste of it across the blood between her teeth, so she respectfully moved the whole bounty of her mouth even when she spoke the mantra without putting breath behind it.
Brown looked without shine over to her and said, “Stay on my hip. Always stay on my hip. Do not get ahead of me!”
And slowly, off he started. She breathed twice more and followed, trying to sidle like a crab, trying to keep that unruly bum of hers down. She snaked inside her clothes as she had seen her mother snake for her father once the children were turned out to bed. She felt an electric smoothness she imagined to be akin to the glowing power that her mother must have felt at those caprices of cloth folding and bunching and being less tactful than the body beneath.
The first man reached the first pole and stood jackstraw straight up. Out with his knife and, snip, snip, the first flag was down. The man who had been on his hip stood at the second pole and, snip, snip, the second flag came down. Soon, men and women were converging on all the poles and, snip, snip, the flags came down. Ecru reached the slaughter herself and made a furious bowl of her arms. Men and women came to her, folding the flags as best they could, placing them across the rack she made between elbow and fingers. She tried to twist in the direction of the fellow villager coming next, but Brown told her to stand still, to wait for the raiders to come to her, to be the part he needed her to be.
She was not the only one being piled with flags. All the younger raiders were standing like statues, stationed along the edges of the field of poles, each being burdened with civilizations of flags, each being covered with flag after flag—but not with so many that they could not run if they had to. Black had told them all the logistics of this: cutter to holder, and only so much to a holder, so that fully burdened, the holder could yet bolt, could take the lead given by a good warning and make a bottomless break for it.
Ecru tried to breathe in when a cutter approached her, tried to breathe out as a cutter left. At times, she took too many breaths, at times not enough. She would think later on how best to breathe. Her chest and diaphragm had to speak more of coordination, but there would be more. Breathing now was only a part of being in service.
A light sputtered dutifully on in the village, and then shortly another. There was a small, wide open face at a far away window and one of the raiders yelled, “Away!” and they were running, all of them, no thought of stealth, all first into the tall grass and then soon into the forest and they could hear the robbed villagers stirring and cursing behind them, but no one would chase a raider at night into the forest.
Ecru felt the fuel of the cloth across both of her arms. She felt a warmth she could not place as Brown came up beside her and supported one elbow. They walked now, walked towards the river that would accompany them the rest of the way home. Brown murmured something to her and she thought for a moment this might be her woman-night, but he made no ritual motions—there was no cooing, nor the rain barrel thoroughness of stray stoking, and soon they were at the moon-race of water that fingered their village and provided them the bearings of life.
The water barely moved. This was the still season, the time between the water’s rush in and the water’s rush out. Brown took a banner from Ecru’s arms, and soon others were there to take banners. Each raider bent at the edge of the river and drove a flag into the water, rubbing the cloth against itself, washing the prayers of the former owners out of the pregnant flags, and watching those misshapen enemy prayers lazily float for a while in the life-giving water, then sink like the scat of lost animals into the bed against which the river comforts itself.
One saddle-skinned man, who had been washing more vigorously than most, stood and said, “These now are our prayer flags. The cruel prayers of our rival village are gone. They have been given to the river, who will never release them to God. We can return home and fill these fresh, sterilized flags with our prayers, place them on our poles, and be the one village to know God’s crystal, shimmering answers.” He moved his arms about like a man putting out feed for the family’s chickens, mechanical but sure, and he cooed these well-known lines like a mother putting a colicky child to bed. Ecru knew he had not missed a word. She fumbled to find some error, some missed intonation, but none was there, and the sound of his benediction drifted over the river like mornings of mist and finely kissed fog.
These flags would rise alongside those already hoisted in their village, fattened with their new prayers: with supplications for success, with desires for health, with the need for a rival’s pratfall. Ecru might have her own flag, roiled through and through with the wish for a man with a blind heart and fingers that curled thoughtlessly inward when he stood unaware. Hers would be one of a mighty army of many colored prayer flags that God could enjoy, each whipping out its cautiously wrapped words without the competition and noise of the other villages’ prayers, without their petty pleadings and hunger for forgiveness, their shortcomings and ferocities, without their lust for God’s limited time.
Everyone strung a prayer flag over his or her shoulders, and when there were not enough for everyone, it was the novice raiders who were left short. They would have to fashion their own prayer flags out of homespun cloth and stolen thread when they returned to their welcoming village. Ecru fell into line behind Brown, who had paid no notice to her since relieving her of a prayer flag. She tried to step into his footsteps, but the dark dazzled her and when she thought she was not in his stride, she was, and when she thought she was in his stride, she was not.
Once, when almost out of the forest, they all heard a rustle going past to the East, coming from the dark at the end of which their village waited. Perhaps it was a coven of fox, or a nest of wolves, or some gathering of prey pulling itself together at the noise of the returning raiding party. Ecru would have liked to have known, but she squatted with the others, waiting in her unknowing for the uncompromising sound—so like a purposed army of tarnished, thieving feet—to devoutly pass and drift away, replaced almost immediately by what soon seemed a nervously rising, stunned lamentation stabbing out a while ahead from the hollowed heart of home.
—Ken Poyner’s collections of short fiction—Constant Animals and Avenging Cartography—and his latest collections of poetry, including Victims of a Failed Civics, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press. He serves as bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s powerlifting affairs. Being married to one of the world’s premiere 105 lbs. class and 97 lbs. female powerlifters leads to all sorts of intriguing places. Ken spent 33 years in information management before taking early retirement to pursue being actively idle.