My people have always hunted the banks of the Happy River. Since the Before Times we have pitched our tents between the deep rushes at the water’s edge. The tall yellow grasses hid the ones we hunted. We wore their hides, their meat kept us strong, and their pelts warmed us at night. Their teeth and claws made us fierce, and their many dark feathers helped us fly among the clouds with our ancestors as they chased the gods towards the stars.
We are the storytellers. People from the dark hills and broad green valleys come to hear our tales at the great fairs where we go to buy and sell. Every night in our camp we build a fire big enough for all my people to sit around to stay warm when the evening chill creep silently from the Happy River on pale gentle mists. The fire wards off the things that slink and slither and bite by night, and warns the many eyes watching us from the darkness we too are watchful.
All the children of my people knew the warning; do not stray, not child, not woman, not man, set no foot beyond the fire’s protection into the dark night. Those we hunted by day were hunted by others who prowled by night. Those who wandered into the grasses and the reeds after the sun hid his face beyond the stars never returned to us. It’s only fair, my father said, we hunt and eat their sons by day, the night is theirs. When I was a child I asked my mother about the eyes watching, but she would never speak of them. My brother said the watching eyes belonged to spirits of animals we had hunted who now waited to capture our souls. He said other things watched us too, they were the real reason for the fire. He had heard someone calling his name one night when he went to release his water and had almost gone to see who it was before my father dragged him back into the light of the fire. I asked my mother about this. She laughed and said he was just trying to scare me. But her face stopped laughing and she scolded me for listening to him. Then she went off to the old ones’ tent. The old ones, who no longer tended the needs and whims of children and husbands. My mother was only allowed to visit the tent on sacred days. All I knew of the tent was day and night you could hear singing and laughter. The women cooked for each other and feasted into the night. They chanted and called out to the gods by names we dared not speak, their true names known only to themselves and their chosen friends. I knew my mother longed for the day when my father was no more, when I was old enough to weave my own tent, and my brother went alone to the Sending Cave to carve his great spear and take up the hunt with his brothers. Of what she saw and did with these old women, she never spoke, but her eyes twinkled and she smiled whenever she thought upon it.
One night, the day before the celebration of my birth fourteen summers ago, we were gathered before the fire listening to stories. Our tales were never told the same way twice for fear the spirits might learn them and know our secret ways. I lay curled up in a pelt next to my father, dozing, warm and safe. I watched as a sudden spray of sparks broke from the fire and rose into the night sky. I roused myself and looked around. There were so many eyes watching from within the wall of yellow grasses I thought there must be animals by the hundreds out there. I heard a noise. Then, the sound of my mother calling me. I said her name then jerked awake, I had been sleeping and only dreamed. I wriggled out of my father’s arms and saw he was asleep and snoring now. Everyone but me was asleep and the fire had died down to nothing but a pile of soft red embers. I heard someone calling my name again, a woman, but it was not my mother. It was a clear bright voice I did not know, so I stood up to see who it could be. I looked all around then walked to the edge of the ring of light cast by the dying embers. It was so much colder there.
The wall of yellow grasses was now a sea of eyes, there was no movement out there at all. I took one step outside the protective ring of light, the eyes parted before me and a narrow fresh-beaten path no wider than my own body lay before me. I turned and looked back at the fire and the sleeping forms of my father and brother. Then I looked at the wall of grasses on either side of me, each filled with bright unblinking eyes. I glanced again at my father and remembered his warning. The voice came again, sweet as a reed flute, like my mother’s when she sang me to sleep in her arms as a babe. There was a gentle rustling in the grass around me and the sound of many small feet running. Without knowing why, I started running down the little path, the many feet now running alongside me keeping pace with my own.
At the end of the narrow trail of flattened grasses a woman sat in the soft white sand beneath a dead Acacia tree, her long slender legs folded gracefully beneath her body like those of a young gazelle. I had never seen such a beautiful woman. A fire raged before her on this darkest of nights and she stared into the secret heart of the blaze as its tendrils licked hungrily toward the canopy of stars. It was a kindred soul to her, the fire, and she knew him well. He was her protector, her mate, and she was never far from his sight or the warmth he showered upon her body like kisses. How I knew these things, I could not say.
Sparks erupted everywhere in an angry red spray, flinging themselves into the darkness, carried aloft on the night currents. So many of them, they cried out as one, then disappeared into the black chasm above. She woman was digging in the fire with the sharpened tip of her painted stick; she sang words the old ones taught her long ago. Some she told from memory, others she made up as she went along, only to be forgotten the moment they left her lips, while some were nothing more than sounds drawn from her soul by the fire itself. She rocked back and forth, but it was not cold. This was how she remembered, how she knew to stay on the ground and not jump up and fly away with her brothers the sparks as they were called into the company of stars.
I realized these words were in my thoughts, the woman was speaking to me in a tongue I did not know, but did know just the same. I hid at the hem and folds of darkness watching her fire and the strange light flew before her. I listened to the sound of my heart trembling like a small animal in a trap. I tried hard not to make a sound. I was not afraid. I could not pull my eyes away from the woman. I did not dare turn and flee back to the safety of my own fire, back to the warmth of my people. The woman looked directly into my eyes. She knew I was there. The woman’s black eyes stared at me from her perch at the fire’s rim. I had never seen anyone with skin so dark, so smooth and unbroken by any blemish. Maybe this was why I did not flee but sat transfixed, staring at the woman. Full of dread. Full of longing. Hesitating to run into the darkness, away from the woman and the terrible fire she tended. The woman was wrapped in yards and yards of indigo fabric, dark as early night when a full moon rises and the first star appears. There was a great knot of cloth wrapped around her head and she wore a long blue veil that trailed over the pale sand like a river. The many bracelets and necklaces that adorned her body were fashioned of silver; white as milk and blinding to the eye when the light of the moon spilled upon their surface. They were worked in fine and fantastically intricate shapes, emblazoned with designs and symbols unfamiliar to my eye. These were not the markings of my people, they were not the signs we painted on wood and stone and upon our bodies. The woman rose to her feet and threw her arms out wide. The yards and yards of indigo flew away from her body like a flock of monstrous wings.
“Come girl, come now. It’s cold under the stars. Come under my robes where it is warm and wise and you’ll be safe from those who prowl.” The woman sang in an unknown tongue piercing my heart like the lance of the ibex. The exquisite bell-like tinkling of the woman’s bracelets filled the air as she raised her arms and called me to the fire. I trembled in longing and uncertainty but shook my head. I looked back in the direction of the fire of my people and my father dozing with the other men and women. It was quiet there and the grasses were still and no wind filled the air. I remembered I had been here before. Always the same; the fire, the paralyzing fear, the woman more beautiful than it is possible to contain within any human form. Like a great cat stalking her prey the woman slowly began walking toward me, her eyes fast upon me. She was smiling, this woman, her teeth flashed white and sharp in petals of laughter. I could not move; I stood frozen to the ground as though my feet had become strong roots penetrating deep into the body of the earth. I could not even blink to hide the face of my soul from the violet black eyes as they caressed and held me fast. The great folds of the woman’s robes opened before me and I looked inside for the first time. There was nothing there, only emptiness and stars, and a darkness more terrible than any night.
I awakened. The Moon was gone and all around me was the press of thick coarse fur and the snuffling of many warm muzzles probing my body. There was panting and yipping, and the snapping of teeth. The woman was gone but beyond the remains of her fire a huge hyena the colour of midnight paced back and forth on the horizon. I looked down and saw I was naked, the clothes my mother had made me were gone. I was covered in coarse yellow and brown fur. I was hungry. I began to run to the beautiful big hyena as she paced on the horizon. I could see back down the narrow path. My father and brother lay sleeping. Never again would I look back along the trail leading to the people, to the stories they told to keep us from straying beyond the safety of the campfire. I have found my own story. Not the story others told around the campfire. The story I will write anew each time the Moon rises and the tall grasses wave silently in the sweet breeze and the fresh smell of prey blood is on the night wind. I will raise my face into the darkness and catch the scent. I yip and howl into the night, where the prey hides waiting and Hyena Woman our mother points the way.