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The Burning One

by Miles Hurt

 

The Burning One cannot be stopped.

• • •

The specter of it haunted Iblesh, glowing on the horizon of his dreams. When he slept, his parents lived again. The Burning One came across the endless plain, a human shape wrapped in pale blue fire. His parents didn’t run. It would engulf them, burn their flesh, char them. Their bodies ignited like paper, but they would not scream. The world caught fire.

• • •

Iblesh’s waking life held nightmares of a different kind.

The page is destroyed by the first crease. Ona’s lesson rang in his mind as he dragged his good hand along the fold, crushing the fibers. Half a yard along, he knew he had ruined another piece of paper. The tribesmen at the folding rocks ignored his groan. They flipped their newly-made sheets in skilled hands, forging them into sharp parallelogram units. The page is destroyed by the first crease, and is remade into one of the perfect forms, his Ona would say. Thus we have the use of it.

Iblesh looked at the ragged crease, off-center. Not in this case, he thought. He might not care, if he hadn’t spent several days pulping the fibers for it with a heavy steel rod. He sighed, and started again. He worked a smooth stone across the middle of the page, bending low to hold the sheet in place with his stunted right arm.

The sun lifted high above the oasis. Work continued, at the pulping pits and the slurry pools. There could never be enough paper, especially just before a migration. Tribesmen dipped wire-frame deckles into the vats of pulped slurry. They spread the fibrous mixture out into sheets and placed the frames on the ground to dry. The sheets were pressed in stacks beneath large wooden boards, weighted with stones used by generations of hands. Across the waters of the oasis pools, women were stringing up the sheets from lines hung on the trees, the faint blush of colorful inks showing. Iblesh caught sight of his Ona, laying a rough page onto one of the cutting boulders, working a blade through the template scarred into the rock, sweeping aside the excess.

She paused in her work, somehow feeling his eyes on her. She smiled across the distance.

Someone whistled. Lunch.

• • •

“You’re frustrated, Iblesh.”

He said nothing, poking at the berries and lichen in his folded bowl.

“You’re young,” Ona said. “You’ll learn.”

Her face, though weathered and tanned, was gorgeous. Soon he would appear the same age as his own grandmother. He did not know how old she was. When he asked her, she would reply that she couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t alive. Did she smile a little when she said it? Teasing, elliptical responses he could never quite grasp.

“At least I can crush pulp,” he said. “I can understand how to do that.”

It was cool in their hut. The cream-colored paper modules were fitted snugly into a dome high enough to stand in. Ona swallowed the last mouthful of her own lunch, and smoothed out her bowl into a flat sheet crosshatched with wrinkles.

“The perfect forms exist,” she began, making a diagonal fold, “whether there is paper or not. We understand them, meditate upon them, and they come into being through us.” Her deft fingers doubled the paper back onto itself, popped it out. He realized she was making a model of a li-li, one of the birds that migrated to the oasis for water. Finished, she held it up; though it was crisp, the neck was too long, the tail too short. “Imperfect. You see? But informed by the idea. The idea lives in it.” With a snap she unmade the model, passed the wrinkled page to him. He took it with his good hand.

“And now the idea is gone?” he asked.

She cocked her head.

“Even if there are no folds in the paper, the perfect forms exist. Think about this when you are working.”

“I still don’t get it,” he murmured.

She grasped him by the wrist.

“You will.”

He thought of his toil, and how hard it was with his imperfect body.

“When will we go to the migration, Ona?”

“You’re tired of work, aren’t you, Iblesh?”

He nodded. Nothing was lost on her.

“Do you know when you’ll be called?” he asked.

“How do you know it’ll be me that’s called?”

She looked suddenly weary, and for a second he knew she was old.

“It’s always you, Ona.”

Another whistle pierced the thin walls of their hut. Rising. Repeated.

Her eyebrows flickered up.

“Not always.”

• • •

Around the fringe of the oasis, the tribesfolk dismantled their homes. The polyhedra came apart easily, facets breaking up, the modules stacked. They reformed some into thigh-high cubes, folding and sticking the parallelogram points into the matching slots of other pieces. They loaded their possessions into the sturdy boxes. The chief, Breyu, strutted up and down, goading people on.

“Quickly, now. We don’t want to lose sight of her.”

Past the lowering huts, Iblesh could see the diviner. Isylla, a young girl, the triangle of her paper skirt reducing over the distance of the lichen-floored plain. She was walking, drawn by her trance, to the migration path of the tapijara.

Breyu paused, gave Iblesh a forced smile as he packed his belongings into a small cube of doubled paper. Iblesh dropped his gaze, unable to meet that false look. He pities me, he thought. The deformed one, the orphan. They only tolerate me because of Ona.

“Isylla heard the call this time,” the chief said to her.

She smiled.

“I knew she would, Breyu. Sooner or later.”

“No regrets?”

“None. It’s no fun going without food or drink for three days.”

The chief idly straightened a stack of modules, lifting them into a cube. Iblesh felt that he was trying to appear casual.

“When we get there,” he said without looking at her, “maybe you will build a hut with me?”

Ona smiled again, though Iblesh recognized she was being polite.

“Another time,” she replied.

Breyu nodded, then sauntered off without reply.

“You could have stayed with him, Ona,” said Iblesh. “I wouldn’t mind.”

She looped her long hair into a bun, placed a wide-brim hat on her head.

“I would,” she said. “Breyu is too much the chief.”

Iblesh was silent, his mind again stuck on his Ona’s turn of phrase.

“You have everything?” she asked, smiling. “Will you be ready to hunt?”

Iblesh touched the tip of the curved metal cylinder in his packing cube, nestled in with some glass jars. Its alien metal surface reminded him of the tribe’s last journey to the distant caravan routes. The memory was vague; he had been very small. Iblesh’s family had traded their surplus paper. It had been shortly before their death.

“I’m ready, Ona.”

“Good,” she said. “Let’s get some water.”

• • •

Most of the tribe had left, trailing after the distant diviner, cubes on their heads. Several dozen were at the pool’s edge, scooping water with cones into waxed boxes. Iblesh brushed away Ona’s helping hand. He lifted his filled box to his weak shoulder, clamping his withered hand to the top. Everything went well until he also reached for his packing cube, which split apart when he placed it on his head. The sections of the water box popped, contents dousing the woman next to him. Her paper dress was soaked, tearing easily.

“I’m sorry,” said Iblesh, gathering his possessions. She tried to keep the disgust from her expression, pushing past him.

Ona helped him refold his cube, pack the empty jars and cylinder again.

“What about water?” he said.

“Someone will share,” she replied.

• • •

The tribe settled into the quiet tread of the journey across the featureless green plain. The diviner was only yards in front. The sun set, and the purple sky was pricked one by one with bright stars. The moon rose, glowing full. The diviner wandered into the night, several hundred in tow.

There was a cry ahead of Iblesh and Ona. A group of people paused, lowering their packs. A man was lying on the ground, collapsed, his belongings scattered about. Water from his store was puddled, seeping into the pale green lichen. It was Hando, the second man of the tribe. Two women crouched next to him and wept. The crowd broke into murmurs. Iblesh craned to look. The man’s eyes were open, but his only movement was faint breathing.

“He is desolate,” said Ona.

Desolate. Iblesh knew that his parents had fallen to the crippling weariness, on their return journey from the caravan route.

“What is wrong here?” Breyu. He took one look at the prone tribesman.

“You two,” he said, clicking his fingers at a pair of young men. “Pick him up. He might come back.”

The two women wailed as the men handed their packs to others. Iblesh presented himself, but was not needed. The young pair hefted the dead weight of their tribesman, wrapping his arms around their shoulders.

“We must move,” said Breyu.

• • •

Isylla paused just before dawn, still entranced. The tribe slumped to the ground, knowing that they only had an hour or so to snatch sleep before the diviner picked up the path again. Breyu held a cup of water to the diviner’s lips as she stood, tilting her jaw back and forcing her to swallow.

• • •

Another day and night of walking, and a second person fell with the desolation. Mahra, a young and strong woman. Her children screamed as she was taken up in supporting arms, borne toward the migration path. Iblesh was weary from the journey, and fretted at the sight of the desolate. In the babble of conversations around him he heard the word omen, the name of the Burning One.

At sunset on the third day, Isylla came to a halt. She blinked, taking a confused look at the plain around her. Then, three days without food, she crumpled.

The night was perfectly still. The people went through the silent ritual of selecting new hutmates, many adults grouping into pairs, threes and fours. Older children were left to house themselves. The new groups built their huts, fitting the stock parallelograms into an array of shapes, weaving colors into their designs.

Iblesh and Ona set up their hut and went inside, yawning. Ona took a pair of docki stones from an envelope and cracked them together. There phosphorescence lit the hut. She put them in a pair of upturned cone lanterns. Iblesh plucked handfuls of lichen and placed them into bowls. On the dry plain, the lichen was one of the few plants that could survive, subsisting on water vapor. The staple of the tribe, it was bitter and unvarying.

They ate.

“Will the desolate ones come back, Ona?”

She dipped a cup into the water box, drained it at one gulp.

“Perhaps,” she said, wiping her lips. “Some do.”

“What makes them?”

“Go, or come back?” Her teasing smile again.

Iblesh knew what made someone become desolate. Some hidden truth of reality was revealed, in an instant voiding a person’s will to live, their will to move. It was taboo to speak of this truth, and Iblesh did his best not to think of it.

“Come back,” he said.

She chewed her last bite of food, smoothing out her bowl in the familiar ritual. Working it nimbly, she halved the flat sheet and began a series of quick, small folds. Iblesh recognized the long beak, the semi-circular crest atop the head. She had created a wide-winged tapijara. With a flick of the wrist she made it fly. By a design of the folding it flew in an arc, encircling Iblesh where he sat. It glided behind him, coming back around to her. She tapped it on the underside as it came past, sending it higher. In this way the paper model traced circle after circle in the hut.

“We are something like this tapijara,” she said, tapping it again. “We can go on and on. Hando, who collapsed on the first night, is very old. Much older than me, though we appear the same age. We can continue, but something has to keep us going.”

The tapijara swept past her again, and this time she left it alone. Two more circles and it landed in her lap. She looked at Iblesh, the point concluded.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Maybe Hando doesn’t want to come back.”

Iblesh blinked.

“But what about the woman? Mahra. She has three children.”

As soon as he spoke he remembered his parents, and the age he’d been when their desolation came. They hadn’t stirred from it.

“Perhaps her love for them will bring her back. Who knows?” A flicker of impatience crossed Ona’s face, a flicker of weariness. Something Iblesh had never seen in her. “We should rest,” she said, lying down.

“I’m sorry, Ona. I’m sorry about your daughter.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Iblesh,” she said over her shoulder. “The Burning One cannot be stopped.”

The phrase rolled off her tongue, one of the lessons that he had heard many times. It was Ona’s fatalism, he thought; a way to deal with her loss.

A pale blue fire shone in his mind. A glimmer of a dream, or a memory.

“Go to sleep, Iblesh.”

• • •

The first day of the migration hunt was always light. The men of the tribe traveled several hundred paces from the newly constructed village, carrying their metal cylinders. They spread out across the flat ground, sitting crosslegged in pairs or threes in the area where Isylla collapsed. Iblesh sat alone, listening.

Listening.

He heard it. A whooping cry rang out. Black specks appeared in the sky, distant and sparse. The first of the tapijara. The men spun where they sat, turning to meet the migration path. More calls pierced the air, rising and falling, alien and urgent. The noise grew, distorting the excited shouts of the hunters. The men ran to reposition themselves into a wide crescent. They flipped open their cylinder lids.

The tapijara glided on steady wings. Their progress seemed slow, the pattern of their formation shifted with wind and the occasional flap. Some veered out to gain altitude, circling high. Their pace was deceptive; in no time they were within range of the tribesmen.

Iblesh’s eye was drawn to one, off to the side. He watched it make small tilting adjustments, its long wings twitching. As the thin flock passed over their heads, the men released their harpoons. They sizzled into the sky, but none hit their mark. A webwork of lines drifted limply to the dry ground.

Iblesh’s target swung away from the group, seeking an updraft. He tracked it, his finger waiting on the catch. It rose above the flock, hard crest shining red in the sun. When its long mouth opened to call out. Iblesh released the catch. The spring trembled as the harpoon shot into the air, trailing its thin cord. The tapijara swung back, intersecting with the flight of the harpoon. The steel broke through the reptile’s neck.

Iblesh gave a whoop of triumph; he had claimed the first kill. The other men cheered with surprise.

Broken, the tapijara fell to earth with twitching wings. Iblesh cranked the handle on his cylinder as he ran to meet it, re-spooling the line. He hauled his prize clear of the other harpoons. The creature’s long beak made a curving gash in the sandy soil.

• • •

The last of the forerunners passed over the battery. There were only a half-dozen kills for the day, two of them on the end of Iblesh’s harpoon. When the men returned to the stellated huts, he was at their head, carrying his pair of tapijara by the claws, their red crests skidding on lichen. The women waited in the open space at the center of camp. Breyu struck Iblesh’s shoulder and pointed at Isylla. Iblesh knew what to do, enacting one of the timeless rituals of the tribe. He had seen other tribesmen, in other migrations, complete the ritual with Ona. He had heard the story of his grandfather’s triumph many times. With his good hand he laid the first tapijara on the ground before the diviner. The eyes of the village watched as he raked his harpoon blade across its breast, and split the thick skin.

It had been the perfect kill. The ceremony was timeless, perfect. And he, the deformed one, felt perfect in this moment.

There was an odd murmur among the women; the misshapen idiot was suddenly the village champion. They watched Isylla. She lifted the fallen creature in her arms, its soft wings collapsing, its long beak lolling. She pushed her fingers into the cut Iblesh had made, withdrawing dark flesh.

She ate, and everyone cheered.

The other tapijara were shared among the women, the bird-like bodies skinned with harpoon blades, the meat pulled forth and eaten raw. A small feast, on the first night of the migration, with many people watching on. Little of the creatures went to waste; the claws and gizzards were ground with pestle and mortar into a dark paste for the children.

The meal complete, music broke out. The tribe sang, chanted, clapped out polyrhythms that made Iblesh giddy. They blew hooting notes through long rolled tubes of paper, mimicking the whooping call of the tapijara.

Iblesh looked for his Ona, holding his second kill like a precious trophy. She wasn’t in the crowd. He wandered to their hut, beaming, triumphant. The music of the tribe throbbed. He knew that he had started it, caused the revel. His heart pounded.

Ona was limp against the side of the hut, neither sitting nor lying down, the modules forced apart with her weight. In the purple glow of the docki stones he could see her eyes. They were open, staring at nothing.

Desolate.

“Ona,” he said to her, “Ona, come back. I made the first kill.”

She didn’t stir.

“I made the first kill…”

• • •

The sky flickered. A wide sheet of migrating tapijara swept overhead. The air rang with whooping cries. The kill piles heaped higher. The tribesmen ceased to aim their harpoons, striking hits with random shots. Iblesh, however, went without luck.

He sat for long periods, entranced by the pattern of wings in the sky. He thought of Ona’s paper model, when she had tried to teach him about the desolation.

By late afternoon his ears hurt from the noise and he felt sick. No matter how many times his harpoon sprang into the air, he could not bring down a kill. The good-natured taunts soon dried up. The other men acted as though some contagious weird were upon him, and gave him a wide berth. With the sun dipping to the flat horizon, he reeled in his harpoon for the last time, and closed the lid.

He had hoped to give his Ona a reason to stir, to come back to him. Instead he faced only jibes from the women for returning empty-handed. Twilight swept across the plain as he approached the huts.

A lightning-blue flame ignited in the midst of the village, fierce and bright. It roared high, a pillar of blinding light. Iblesh shielded his face, and dropped to a crouch. Women and children screamed.

The Burning One had come.

Iblesh dashed into the village, skirting the paper buildings. Odd rays and shadows played across the ground as the Burning One moved through. Iblesh came to the wide space where the tribe had feasted the night before, and saw the creature from his dreams, like a human cloaked in fire. The air was warped by the heat. The faces of the tribeswomen were small blue ovals, peering from the dark folds in the homes.

“Iblesh!” one of them yelled. It was Isylla, cowering, her eyes shining. “Don’t try to stop it!”

Hando emerged from a hut. Iblesh thought for a moment that the Burning One had stirred him from his desolation. But he walked in a trance, like the diviner seeking the migration path. The Burning One came to him with arms outstretched. It laid glowing hands on him, and his flesh sizzled. The sky-blue flame erupted in a halo around Hando. There was a flash and Iblesh shielded his watering eyes. When he opened them again, a great pillar of fire rose out of the clearing, leaving a cascade of ash where Hando had stood, and browning the nearby walls.

Mahra, the mother of three, appeared on the far side of the clearing, her paper frock glowing blue in the weird light.

The Burning One was claiming the desolate.

“Someone help,” called Iblesh. “It’ll kill her!”

Nobody moved. A baby squealed from somewhere. He looked around the open space, expecting his Ona to appear, the third desolate victim. Iblesh felt the coiled weight of the harpoon in his hand.

His Ona would be next, after Mahra.

“Iblesh!” Isylla’s voice tore the air.

He bolted across the clearing toward the Burning One. Two lighting blue eyes crackled in its white form, as the desolate woman was drawn to it. He knocked open the lid with his withered hand and felt for the catch with his thumb. His face burned as he drew near, his eyebrows crisped. He jammed the canister under its chin, the skin of his hands frying, and released the catch. The harpoon jettisoned, spiking through the top of its head.

The Burning One cannot be stopped.

It turned, scorching his body. He screamed. The flame reduced, and in the blue glow Iblesh could see the face of the Burning One.

“Ona,” he said.

She toppled backward into a hut, her head broken. The paper segments burst into flame at her touch. A corona of orange fire surrounded his grandmother, her body propped by the folded segments. She fell through, the structure ripping apart. Sheets of black and burning paper lifted on the waft of heat and scattered across the village.

Mahra stirred then, ripped from her desolation. The muscles on her arms and neck juddered and locked, her hands hooked, and she howled. She howled at Iblesh as though she were mad, and he the cause of it. She leapt at him, tore at his face. He stumbled back, kicking free of her. None of the women helped him. He fled the communal space, running into the endless twilight of the plain.

He understood Ona’s lesson at last.

It cannot be stopped. It must be left alone.

Some distance away, he turned to look. The tribesmen were returning in a rush from the hunt, and fighting the spreading blaze, stripping huts to the ground and stamping on smoldering embers. More children screamed. Pieces of paper, reduced to a grey ash, sifted through the village as light as ghosts.

• • •

The caravan found the wanderer parched and starved. They recognized him as a papermaker by his clothes, which were blackened and shriveled. It was odd to find a member of such a close-knit tribe on his own. They gave him a light linen cloak to wear. He had trouble putting it on, maybe because of his withered limb, maybe because he wasn’t used to cloth. Livid burns covered his face and neck and arms. At night, a blazing wood fire kept the cool air at bay.

They asked him questions.

They asked him where he was going. He told them he didn’t know, only that he was leaving his people behind. They asked if he left of his own will, and he did not reply. They asked him why he left, and he said that he had killed the Burning One, who gave his people release.

His eyes watched the yellow flames dance, and they soon stopped asking questions.

 

 

Miles Hurt is a writer who lives in Castlemaine, Australia with his partner Sonia and their baby son Emmett. When not massaging his brows over a glowing computer screen, he maintains his hobby of working full-time as a teacher. The idea for the papermakers tribe came to him while doing sonobe origami with his students. Check out his blog at mileshurtcom or follow his many pithy remarks on Twitter at @miles_hurt.


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ISSUE #21

September 2011

FICTION

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