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|Chapter 1: Exothermia|
January 21, 2014
Chapter 1: Exothermia (3/4)
It felt like only a moment later, but speckles of light were already moving back and forth through the tent's weaving. The morning birds hadn't finished their songs yet, so I couldn't have slept for too long. I pushed myself off my sleeping pad and sat, eyeing the dark clothes I'd folded next to me on the river gravel. They created a tension in the air that almost seemed out of place amongst the voices of children, mothers, and monks that spoke every so often beyond the fabric of my tent. It felt too early to face the elders, but the sooner I got it done the better. I needed to speak to Monk Pyatoc as quickly as possible.
In any case, I had to gain composure before I faced him and the others. Fortunately, the brisk morning always invigorated me. I reached toward the tent flap and closed my eyes, feeling for the outside, then slowly pulled it toward the door flaps. The cold spilled in, making me shiver, and mixed with the warm, drowsy atmosphere that I had built and held around me in my sleep. I breathed it in, deeply, filled my lungs with it, then exhaled and breathed again, using it to dissipate the fog of sleep from my mind. It had been very cold over the past few months, but it seemed like the mornings were slowly beginning to get warmer.
An image of Monk Pyatoc's downcast face from the night before flashed before my eyes, centering my thoughts on the discussion that lay before me. What did he think about me? He had looked so disappointed. I have to explain myself, and hope he would understand. Did he know what I had done? If it came to it, talking to the other elders could wait. Explaining things to him was top priority.
I left all my clothes inside, save for the yellow wrap around my waist. With the sun up and no tree-hopping planned, I could easily hold on to the warmth around my body. It seemed like if it was given too much of an opportunity, it would leave and mix in with the air of the rest of the world.
Sometimes it seems like that's all the elders and the monks ever want to do - just dissolve into the air and become one with life, break through that illusion of separation or whatever and lose their selves. I didn't have that luxury, though. None of us really did. I wish that they'd realize that and understand why defense had become so terribly necessary. They had to be convinced that allowing for my use of the air was the only way we'd survive. If they aware of life and cherished it as much as they claimed, they'd see why it needed to be protected, now, at all costs.
The tent flap slipped from my arm as I stood out onto the cold, sunlit stones. I did a quick stretch with my arms, then scanned over the tops of the tents for the elders. It was a bright, sunny morning, and the forest beyond the tent was a deep shade of green. There were a few men and women walking through the camp, following the small children they were caring for. Others sat, mending clothes or grinding ricegrass seeds in little wooden bowls. A few people did the same as I was doing: emerging from their tents and mentally preparing themselves for the day.
I set off. Walking between some areas of the camp was difficult due to the spacing of the tents, but it felt nice knowing that another person was a little more than an armslength away.
I made my way over to where Duon was sleeping, but he was snoring pretty loudly so I decided to let him rest. It was just as well - if the elders were about to pass judgement, I should be the one to take it. I had been the leader of the group and was responsible everyone's actions, regardless of how willing they had been to follow me.
It would've been nice, though, to talk things over with him beforehand. Duon worried about our people just as much as I did. He probably stayed up just as late, thinking about how recent developments would impact our lives.
It didn't look like any of the other members of our group were up yet either, but I was keeping my eye out more for the elders so I might not have seen them. There didn't seem to be any of the elders around, though. It was morning... they would probably be meditating on the boulders in the dry riverbed. Hopefully they wouldn't be too difficult to find.
I walked passed the tents toward the edge of our camp, heading toward the forest, but was interrupted by the sound of a little girl's voice.
I turned around and saw her walking toward me from around a tent, arms outstretched. I dropped one knee into the rocks to lower myself to her level and she leaned up into a hug. I leaned back, holding her up. She was so skinny, and it didn't help that she was growing so much. I set her back down on the ground. Her eyes were always so surprisingly blue - deeper than the afternoon sky, and more colorful than the meadow-lizard eggs that shone out from their nests of dead grass.
Ruanna had followed behind her, hands clasped and tight-lipped as if she were trying to smile. I felt a brief jolt of envy as I glanced up at the tip of the arrow showing from under her hood. I'm sure she got that look a lot from all the monks in waiting.
I leaned back, holding Yola at armslength. "Hey, you're getting pretty big!"
She looked down and spoke quietly. "I didn't see you yesterday." She used to be so energetic.
"I was gathering materials for clothing out in the forest. Maybe I'll make it up to you with a lemur-ride when we start travelling again." She nodded and looked up with an excited gleam in her eyes. I knew she liked the idea.
She watched me as I stood. "Maybe I'll see you later today, okay?"
She hugged my waist, but stepped back when Ruanna took her hand. Ruanna looked at me. "Travelling?" she asked, softly. There was so much that could be communicated in one word. Hopefully, if everything went well today with the elders, our lives will change for the better.
"We've been figuring things out," I reassured her. "Things will be easier soon."
I looked down at Yola and gave her a small smile, then continued on my way out of camp. It was time to find Monk Pyatoc and the other elders. My anxiety increased, but I tried to calm my mind by focusing on my walk.
The transition between the river rocks and the forest was quite sudden. Grass and small plants shot up from between the stones at the forest's edge, then dead leaves mixed in and the stones got smaller. Once between the trunks, the gravel blended into the dark soil and got covered by moss and creeping plants. I still stepped carefully, though, just in case there was a sharp rock or a fallen stick that was hidden below the blanket of green ovals.
The forest became dense with bushes along what was once the bank of the river. I walked along them for a while, stepping around tree trunks and dodging the thorny vines that stuck out. There didn't seem to be a way down into the riverbed without shoving my way through the plants, and I wasn't prepared to do that - both out of respect for nature and not wanting to get scraped. I can never seem to find the path the elders take.
There was an opening up ahead in the tree branches that revealed the light blue sky, just big enough to make a jump through. It wasn't the type of path an elder would have taken, but I was getting impatient. The fall into the riverbed on the other side would be tricky without my clothes to help catch the air, but I could still manage. It wouldn't be good to meet with the elders while wearing them.
I crouched down into the jumping-stance and tensed my spine to loosen the air above me. As I pushed off, I pulled apart the air in my path and rode the blast of wind that rushed up to fill the gap. I cleared the bushes, but as the river floor came into sight I noticed that the drop was quite a bit deeper than I'd thought.
I quickly spun my arms, pulling the air under me into a compressed sphere to cushion my landing. The ground came rushing up and I sank down into the air-cushion, colliding with the riverbed. Stones blasted out in every direction, clattering against boulders and bouncing off the walls with small clouds of dirt, but I was able to land on my feet. Hopefully the elders hadn't heard that.
Now I had to find them. They could be further down, or I may have passed them and had to backtrack a little. There wasn't a clear sight with all the boulders blocking my vision, but I could probably use one of them to my advantage and get a better view. I spotted one close by that was as tall as a standing platypus-bear and stepped toward it, maneuvering my footing over the larger river stones. I tensed my back again and jumped up, riding the wind up to the top of it.
The riverbed separated the forest in two and opened up to a wide view of the sky. There was no sign of the elders on the boulders scattered around the riverbed ahead of me, but I turned around and saw them in the distance: a few figures sitting in a semi-circle, facing the river wall, bald heads bright in the sun. I had passed them.
I dropped off the rock and landed with a blast of air, then began walking in their direction around the big rocks and little shrubs that had managed to take hold in the stones. In just a few moments, I'd be facing them. This was going to be important. Being level-headed and completely able to explain my argument was essential.
I was getting close. I stepped carefully, trying not to dislodge any rocks and disturb the quiet. My heartbeat was thudding in my ears, and my anxiety grew with every move forward.
I leaned back against a boulder and closed my eyes, trying to relax myself with the meditation technique I had tried to use earlier: focusing on my surroundings. I listened to the birds of the forest. I felt the air flow in and out of my lungs, and the boulder against my skin. I smelled the dry, compact earth of the riverbed walls, and tried to imagine the pulsing of my blood growing calmer and steadier. Monk Pyatoc had said that living in the present was the only way to stop worrying about the future.
But the source of my worries was too close at hand. I'd managed to calm down a little - enough to face them, at least.
They were right next to me, right around the side of the rock - I could see Monk Buo up on a boulder, back straight, eyes closed, and expression relaxed. His pointy, dark gray beard was well-kept and angled down toward his fists, which were connected to form the circular energy path of meditation. Moles dotted his body, face, and head, which gleamed in the sun. He, too, wore very little, only the yellow cloth that stretched from shoulder to hip. His skin was just as sun-browned as the other elders, and was just as tight over his shoulder and rib bones, making the lean muscles and the veins of his arms quite pronounced. The blue arrow tattoos were visible, but were so aged that their edges were blurred and their color had faded partway back to his natural skin tone, like the clouds that dry out into the sky.
His chest expanded and relaxed as he took a breath, as if he were waiting for me to say something. He knew I was here. That probably meant they all knew I was here. Even while in meditation, they seemed to be fully aware and immersed in the world around them.
I stepped out from the rocky surface and walked around the last few boulders, centering myself before them. They were all sitting on rocks of varying sizes with their fists connected, meditating - from left to right it went Monk Agchen, Monk Buo, Monk Pyatoc, Monk Aimedes, who was also up on tall boulder, and Monk Ganshi, the angry one. I looked at Monk Pyatoc, trying not to let my nervousness show, but he greeted me with an attitude that seemed to be unaffected by what he had witnessed last night.
"Good morning, Messio. Have you come to seek council?" It may have been his way of telling me that he hadn't informed the other elders of my activities. What did he think of me?
The rest of them exhaled, ending their meditation poses, and opened their eyes to acknowledge me.
"Good morning," I returned, then greeted each of them by name. I would have to wait to talk with Monk Pyatoc until afterward. "I apologize for the interruption, but there is an issue that I believe needs to be addressed." I controlled my breathing, not wanting to appear anxious. "I am here to express concern for the lives of our people."
There wasn't much of a reaction.
"Tell us," said Monk Ganshi, agitated, "do you think us blind?"
I didn't say anything. That response indicated that the elders may already know my intentions and had been anticipating my confrontation. They'd certainly seen me training those who'd accompanied me during the night to better manipulate the air, although at the time I'd been hoping they were passing it off as practice for fruit gathering or as games. Maybe they'd even seen the clothing we'd dyed, despite our efforts to keep them from sight.
Monk Aimedes spoke. "We are aware of your concerns, Messio, and we certainly share them." He paused. "We have spent quite some time debating over the use of violence as a means of protection."
He'd brought the issue out in the open. It felt like he'd broken a taboo. Monk Agchen shifted around, signifying the controversy. They'd been aware of the situation all along and had already been considering defense. I was a fool. They were wiser than I'd given them credit for, and I had insulted them by thinking otherwise. Monk Ganshi was right to be angry.
I nodded to confirm that it was the reason of my visit, making sure not make my shame visible.
"There has also been talk over the nature of violence itself," he went on, "and whether or not some actions deserve to be labelled as such."
Some actions deserved to be labelled as such? Did that mean some of them were attempting to justify my use of the air?
"Yes," said Monk Agchen in his high-pitched voice, "but we have yet to reach a conclusion over that matter."
The elders were responding to each other unusually quickly. The debate must be a lively one - relatively speaking, at least. Who was on my side? Monk Agchen seemed opposed to the idea. It was hard to get a read on Monk Ganshi, who was probably keeping his demeanor controlled, and I was avoiding making eye contact out of shame. Monk Buo seemed unresponsive. Monk Pyatoc was looking at me, almost through me, as if he were trying to see my thoughts. I looked away. I had to talk with him later, in private.
"However, now that the discussion has grown public," continued Monk Aimedes, his eyes connecting with mine, "it appears we have run out of time."
I had inadvertently pressured them. Hopefully, it wouldn't negatively impact their decision. I tried to keep myself rooted and not shift around.
The rest of the elders were silent, creating an atmosphere of tension - either because they didn't want to discuss it with me here, or because the debate was at a standstill.
Monk Pyatoc broke the silence. "If you would please, Messio, give us some time so we may reach a conclusion. I will be more than happy to speak with you in a little while about whatever else is on your mind."
Monk Pyatoc knew that I wanted to speak with him - but they wanted me to leave. I was going to have to trust them to make the right decision for the future of our people without being involved. If I tried to stay and argue my point, I'd only discredit myself by coming off as hasty and ignorant. I had to trust their wisdom. I had to go.
I connected my fist with my palm and bowed. "Of course," I said, addressing the group. "I await your decision."
Monk Ganshi pointed toward the river wall with his long, bony fingers. "There is a short pathway back to camp over there."
They'd noticed my unusual direction of arrival. They'd probably heard me jump into the riverbed. "Thank you," I said, bowing again to hide the flush of blood to my face from embarrassment. I quickly turned and headed for the path slanting up the dirt wall. First that, then the dismissal. I felt like a child.
The wind picked up, flattening the grass around me at the top of the riverbed wall and almost drowning out the thudding of my heart in my ears. When I got out of earshot from the elders, I punched out a blast of air at a tree and snapped a small branch backward with a loud crack. I immediately regretted doing it. I closed my eyes and breathed, trying to regain composure, but I couldn't lessen the pumping of my blood so I just walked over and pulled the splintered branch back together to conceal the damage.
I shouldn't be ashamed. There was plenty of reason to be concerned. My method of getting into the riverbed was of little importance when compared to the issue at hand. Not everything had to be done as slowly as the elders - our people were starving and exhausted, and they had never given me any reason to think that they were doing anything about it. Actually, if they were just now considering self-defense, they hadn't been. I was doing the right thing when I'd gone to speak with them. We needed a decision, we needed action, and the only way it was going to happen was if they were the ones to encourage it. The people followed their every word and I certainly wouldn't be able to convince all of them to follow me. Our lifestyles had to change if we didn't want to die out, and it can't happen as slowly as the elders would like it to.
The wind was circulating around me. My emotions were too strong. I had to relax. I breathed and closed my eyes, concentrating on the sunlight hitting my skin, and the wind began to lessen. Hopefully, the forest would help clear my mind.
During the walk back to camp, I passed a monk who was sitting under a break in the trees, where the sunlight filtered down in rays. His form was relaxed, fists connected, and eyes closed. I'd seen him a few times before, but I didn't know his name. In that pose, his bare skin practically announced his desire for the arrows.
Meditating as often as the elders and the younger men did seemed like a waste of time. The elders probably did it out of habit, while the young monks did it just to follow their lead. I mean, there's really only so much you can get out of it. They were probably doing it just to demonstrate that they were fully committed to their teachings, or had found inner peace and had become one with life or whatever.
That wasn't to say that it didn't have its uses. It could definitely help to break up the dark thoughts storming in my mind... and it wouldn't be a bad thing if Monk Pyatoc found me in that position when the elders concluded their discussion.
I might as well get the tea ready for him at the same time. He was probably going to try to get me to taste a new flavor, even though he knew that I didn't much care for it. Drinking it seemed like it was the only way I could get him to spend time with me like he used to, though.
There were a few sticks that could be used for a fire, laying around the bases of trees and under foliage. I bent down to pick one up every once in a while as I made my way out of the forest and into camp. When I got back to my tent, I dropped the sticks into a little pile on the river stones and went in to get out a small clump of dead grass and the green spark rocks from my bag. I arranged some of the sticks around the grass, building it into a small circle between mine and Monk Pyatoc's tents, far enough out in the sun and away from walking areas to not get in anyone's way. I propped up a few longer stones around the sides to serve as support for the tea kettle and arranged the rest of the sticks in a neat stack close by for backup.
Monk Pyatoc's kettle was from his childhood, so I was very gentle with it when I took it down to dunk it into the stream and on the walk back. I confirmed the support stones were completely stabilized before placing it atop them, then struck the green rocks and showered the bits of grass poking out from between the sticks with sparks.
Once the little flame took hold, I set the rocks down beside me and assumed a meditation pose. I straightened and balanced my spine between my hips, and connected my fists to better feel the flow of energy within my body. My awareness intertwined with the air, and it began to tug along the energy path with every heartbeat. The air slowly began to circulate around me, moving just a little with every pump of blood. I slowly spun it into a needle, then expanded the path out to intersect with the little flame to liven it into a consistent glow.
I closed my eyes and listened. There was more movement around the tents than there had been in the early morning, and the few voices had grown into a steady, background murmur. I concentrated on the energy flow in my body, keeping the gentle breeze circulating with my blood. The wood occasionally snapped and crackled, and when the smoke smell thickened I broke my pose to place another stick into the pile. Before long, the air began to feel more humid, and I opened my eyes to see a faint wisp of steam rising a small distance from the spout before dissipating. I relaxed my grip on the air, decreasing the flow beneath the pot to lower the heat and stop all the water from bubbling away.
Every once in a while, the river stones would grind as a person stepped by, but more than a few walked passed before I heard footsteps approach and stop. It had to be Monk Pyatoc. I exhaled, pretending to refocus my mind and end my meditation, then opened my eyes. There he stood, brown and skinny, on the opposite side of the teapot. His hands were held below his beard, one palm resting upward in the other.
"May I join you?" he asked, slow and controlled.
"Please," I responded, "I would appreciate your presence."
He nodded, then turned away and bent down into his tent to shuffle through the bag that had held the teapot. He stepped out and stood, then walked back over to my side. There were a few dry leaves pinched between the fingers of one hand and two small, stacked clay cups held in the other, which he gave to me. He lifted the lid of the tea kettle and pushed his leaves in, then lowered himself onto the river gravel next to my side. After he waved more air down below the kettle with his hand, I returned to him one of the cups. There was silence for a moment as we watched the trail of steam move around and vanish into the air. Was he waiting for me to speak? Or was he expecting me to ask about the decision they'd reached?
It was better to be insecure than impatient. If I asked first to explain myself, to justify myself to him, before asking if they had agreed to my proposal or not, then I would show that his approval was more important to me. I would appear more loyal and devoted than impatient and radical.
"Monk Pyatoc," I began, carefully, "I would like to explain myself and what..." I hesitated. Was I about to make life difficult for those who'd accompanied me? "...and what I was doing last night."
He continued to watch the steam. "Are you not interested in the conclusion the council has reached?"
It seemed like my thoughts were always so apparent to him. "Yes, I am interested, but I am more concerned with proving to you my devotion to our people... and our way of life."
He looked at my eyes, as if he were accusing me of lying. Had he lost faith in me? "Messio, you have nothing to prove to me. I know that you truly believe your actions are for the benefit of our people, and I am comforted by how much you care for them, but I am worried that you are leading yourself down a dark path - and it may be better that you do not tell me of your activities in night." My heart thudded as I watched him reach for the steaming kettle. He poured some of the tea into his cup, then moved it toward me. I held mine out, soundlessly, and he filled it, then carefully replaced the kettle on the stones.
The confidence and trust he had had in me had weakened. He knew that my path, my beliefs, were diverging from his, and I felt his concern. The disappointment in his eyes made my heart sink in my chest.
He set his cup down into the gravel at his side, slow enough to not spill any tea, then reached forward and pulled a stick from below the kettle. Only the part between his fingers was still brown - the rest was charred, blackened and corroded by heat. The tip was spiked in orange flames that snapped and popped and sent up puffs of gray smoke as they ate the wood.
"Fire," he said, slowly, "is very useful. It heats our food, keeps the wolves from coming too close, and helps us see when there is no other light. But it is incredibly violent. It is the element of anger and hatred, and will spread and do terrible damage if not carefully suppressed. Something as small as the fire on this stick has the potential to turn a great forest into smoldering lumps of ash and death." He paused, rotating the stick around to help the flame find areas that still had some brown. It was thin and crumbling and had turned white on the edges, and seemed as if it would break apart at any moment. "Violence is connected to anger by its very nature," he went on. "When one allows themselves to behave violently, they become wild and no longer think about the consequences of their actions. They burn, out of control, and can do terrible harm to the world around them. Those they love are put at risk and begin to fall away, and the person becomes a blackened, lifeless waste of what they once were."
I placed my cup in the gravel as he had done earlier. He was concerned that I would lose myself in my emotions? I might not live as slowly and deliberately as Monk Pyatoc and the rest of the elders, but I was always checking myself to make sure my emotions didn't influence my actions. Keeping my thoughts focused while in a fight or an argument was a top priority of mine.
Why couldn't he see the severity of the situation? We had to stand up and protect ourselves. Any more losses would only bring more deaths. Despite what he thought about violence, it wasn't something that set you on a path that you wouldn't be able to turn from. He and the other elders had avoided it their whole lives and likely didn't fully understand it. Using violence was worth the risk - there was no other light, as he had said. We could control ourselves. We were disciplined and had been raised our whole lives to respect the world around us.
Suddenly, before I could respond to him, a woman's scream pierced the air from across the camp. Yelling and more screams followed, and I quickly stood to see what was happening.
Over the shapes of the tents, in the distance beyond the chaotic movement of people, smoke was rising from the treeline. Men and women were frantically running in our direction, trying to pick up children and carry the elderly through the narrow walkways and away from the forest. In the center of the commotion stood a large group of greasy, black-haired strangers, clothed in the skins of animals. They were calm, standing there and watching the fear around them, while bright flames rolled and flickered up from their hands. The fire-tossers had returned.
- 1. Exothermia: Part 3 4
- 2. The Nomad
- 3. Wolfbats
- 4. Sky Blossoms
- 5. Cryoablation
- 6. The Nomad's Offer
- 7. Arid Spirit
For the collective works of the author, go here.