by Michael J. Deluca

The Eater knows things the rest of our tribe can never know.

 ***

On the village common, in the humidity and blazing sun, all the people of my tribe not occupied with sheltering or feeding us assemble to hear and repeat the day’s teaching–a new litany of words. Those present will teach those who are not, and our world will grow.

The Speaker is the oldest person I have ever seen. She is wrinkly and her scalp is bare–though I think she may scrape it to make herself seem older still. The things she knows–the words–she makes herself. Not like the Eater, who walks among us bouncing and gangly like a marsh bird with a broken leg, grey but full of life, showing us those things he may show whose place the Speaker’s words will take.

The shoots of the arm-leg bush abate fever. The forest dog may be friendly alone, but must be avoided when encountered in packs; its flesh is often tough. The snout fish is ugly, but its belly and head taste delicious when cooked with ground fist-nut over coals.

How much of what we know do we owe to the Eater? Everything, some would say–though my brother Meki, who is wise despite his youth, would answer that only the Speaker’s words permit us to use what knowledge the Eater brings. Meki’s voice rings out the words confident and clear above the others–he is so wise. I flush with pride to be his sister, and must struggle to keep up. I confess I find the litany harder and harder to attend to.

The shamblers migrate across our forest in the dry season. They move north to south in bands ranging in number from two to as many as live in our village. Their diet consists primarily of meat. They are stronger and faster than we, their appetites greater. They carry cats’ teeth, horns and heavy lopers’ bones. It is useless to speak to them.

It’s useless trying to name them, trying–through words–to gain understanding of what they are or what they do: kill. The shamblers exist outside of words. That’s not impossible, though some would say so. We did it once.

We only know this through the Eater.

I’ve seen the Eater crawling back to his hut from the darkness, contorting and shuddering. We owe him for that. I’ve heard the madness that boils on the Eater’s tongue when he drinks of the froth from the bone-rattle tree. He is the only one who dares to taste it. I’ve seen him walk across the village as though he’s forgotten in which direction lies the earth and which the sky. He goes into the woods alone. After a time, his body has always returned. But he–the Eater I know or think I know, the laughing Eater with his clever tricks and dances–he stays away for even longer, unable to speak or unwilling, somewhere we can never go or see.

Never, that is, unless one of us follows him.

 ***

When he runs out of animal skins, dead insects, flowers and food to pass among the crowd as the Speaker names each one, the Eater retreats from the village common at his customary lope, tipped back on his heels like a sapling tossed by storm. I leave off the litany and scramble out between sweat-slippery elbows and knees to the edge of the crowd, keeping one eye on the Eater, another on my brother Meki to be sure he doesn’t turn.

At times I am pained for Meki, to know he is so young. I wish he could have been my father or my father’s father rather than my brother, so that he could have lived a part of that generation when everything was new: when things first were given names. Our parents are dead, and our grandparents. It would mean I’d never have known my brother, never been his sister. But living now, when he can at best devise new ways to understand a world already made, it seems my brother’s great gift for words goes to waste.

 ***

“I want to know what you know,” I tell the Eater.

His lips release breath acrid with a scent I can’t place, but his face is open, his eyes laughing. “I know what death tastes like–bitter. Birth, too–like salt. If I perform my task with forethought and precaution, the lives of all those in the village are enriched, prolonged, by what I learn. But my life will at best be changeable and brief.”

“Your life will be richer,” I say, my face warm, “–be it with agony or pleasure–than anyone else’s, elder, adult, or child. When we die, we may think back and know we have seen and smelled and felt the things of this world–but only the Eater will have tasted them.”

He is walking away, his strides long and loping, between the skin walls and the green bough roofs of our village.

I chase after him, struggling to keep up. “An Eater’s life won’t always be brief. You teach our people what is safe. Each Eater will know more than the last.”

I think he smiles–in that way the adults do when Meki and I speak of the future, a smile that I have learned means, “You are eager, but not yet wise enough to grasp the lesson I could teach.” He pinches a heavy leaf-fold of the rain reservoir suspended between one hut and the next, releasing a spout of water that drenches us both as he drinks his fill–enough, I imagine, to drown even the crowd of poisons residing in his belly. As it gushes over me, I close my eyes.

When I open them, he has gone. Into the woods, if I had to guess–here by the grave-mounds where lie those few remains of the shamblers’ victims he has managed to recover. But it’s too bright, out where we have cleared the trees, to tell much of what happens in the shadows.

I could plunge in after him–I could. Risk is part of the Eater’s existence. But he doesn’t always walk like he walks in our village, jelly-kneed and springing. Wherever he went, I can be sure he makes no sound and leaves no sign. I would be lost as soon as I began.

 ***

I go to see the Speaker, weaving with the women after the litany is done. I help; I know how to weave well enough. In and out, sometimes twice in, twice out, sometimes looping back. Some women say the litany while they work, under their breath or together. Meki believes the Speaker teaches it that way to help us remember, to keep the rhythm.

I don’t need the litany to keep a rhythm.

“He will take no apprentice,” she says. “And me telling him won’t make it happen. I’ve asked him before–I know the threat he poses to our village.”

Not he himself, she means, but his absence. The lack of him, or of one like him.

“He considers it his sacrifice to make, one he’ll permit no other to suffer. I can’t blame him. I know better than most the life he must endure.”

He confides in her. The rest of us only hear her translation.

 ***

Meki and I sleep with the children, in hammocks tied like drying seed-pods to the beams of a long, narrow hut. We whisper late across the gap until the others are asleep; in the fullest darkness, we fool ourselves we are the only two left aware in the world. We invent fanciful things to discover in the empty space between us, and Meki gives them names. Tonight, a vast mushroom grows in a towering half-disk from the forest floor to higher than the trees. Animals and bees and people wriggle up between its soft gills to get at the sweet, refreshing resin they secrete. But inside, the gills curve and connect like a closed flower’s petals; beings meet and discover their bodies dissolving, becoming one with the great mushroom and with each other. Meki names this thing Soma.

For me, the game grows stale.

“We’re not creating anything,” I say. “How can we be? This thing exists only in words already made, pieces of other things–not even that. Pieces of words for other things we wish we could combine but can’t. We waste our time.”

I can see the face he makes, though it’s dark. I know it that well. “It’s practice.”

“Practice that no more prepares us for the real thing than eating roast meat prepares us for killing.”

The fibers of his hammock creak. “There is no real thing, sister. Not without words. Not wishes, not dreams, not you and me.”

“It’s easy to say so. But if what you say is true, then what were we, before the Speaker gave us names? Not nothing. The Speaker had a mother, and she had a mother, just as we did. What were they?”

He doesn’t answer. He breathes, steady. He’s asleep–or pretending–dreaming up names for the new things he’ll make when it comes his turn to name them. The Eater, I fear, has no place in his vision.

We once played other games, less delicate, just as competitive. In the dark, the only ones awake, we sat on our knees in our hammocks, struggling to knock each other down. We both know the dirt-taste of the floor, though my brother–younger, smaller–tasted of it more than I. Now we’re older, eager, greedy, both struggling to stretch our game across a wider field, and the roles have reversed.

I lie with my thoughts, alone awake in the world.

 ***

Noise comes from outside–not the chitter of insects, the flutter of membranous leaves in wind above the woods, but grunts, breaths, the heavy-breathing sound of fire. The Eater’s return? I creep out through the flap.

The shamblers run among the skin walls of our village. They look like us, like people. In all the litany has said of them, it never told me that.

They smell of dried blood, soiled earth and animal musk. They move fast, with barely a sound. They set fire to the food stores, slash open the leaf reservoirs. They tear through skin walls with the cats’ teeth in their hands, emerge bloodied, dragging limp forms, and run on, gone as swiftly as they came. Their victims never make a sound. Why don’t they scream, cry out, wake the village?

Why don’t I?

The shamblers exist outside of words. Does that make them immune?

At the edge of the village common, one of them squats to piss. She turns a numb glare along the alley at the end of which I cling to the shadow of our sleeping-hut. In her hands, not a cat’s tooth nor a club of loper’s bone, but a child–scrawny, lips fastened to her dangling breast.

It is useless to speak to them.

She runs on, south across the common toward the outskirts, toward the Eater’s empty hut. I should follow, protect what is his. If she breaks inside to loot or burn, I’ll have an excuse to enter, to see the pallet where I’ve heard him thrash in the throes of the bone-rattle fever, to find what produces those forbidding scents, to rescue some rare and secret food from the rooting clutches of the shamblers.

Instead I stand in the doorway of our sleeping-hut, arms wrapped around myself, listening to the undisturbed breath of the smallest children in their sleep.

 ***

Nine of our people are missing. The shamblers left no bodies, neither ours nor their own. We work to repair what we can, salvaging the good food from the burned, stamping out the fires, sewing up the holes. Everywhere on people’s lips I hear the litany: the comfort of the familiar.

The curled-fingers knot mends a break; it is made from two half-knots, the second reversed. The leaves of the ground-fan, chewed and pressed, make a poultice for wounds. The red fruit of the nine-flower vine-aged under sun, when chewed by the handful, raises spirits; by the bowlful, it induces forgetfulness, the illusion of warmth, and sleep.

I catch myself whispering along.

 ***

During the sun’s height, we rest on the common under the shade of a leaf-roofed pavilion. The Speaker sits among us, looking old. She wears wrappings of bark on her forearm and hand; instead of weaving, she holds the distaff for another as though she were a child. Her eyes are like the shambler woman’s, numb. Did she try to fight them? Was she wounded in the raid?

When the time comes for the litany, it isn’t the Speaker who rises, but Meki.

Meki would have us treat the shamblers like the earthquakes, the floods and the storms: beyond our control, a danger, a hardship to endure, but no true threat; a thing to weather and move on. He claims he has a plan.

Meki is wise despite his youth–in some ways, he is wiser than I. Maybe our people need to hear this.

But the shamblers aren’t like the forest dogs, who act out of habit, driven only by desire or fear. They’re what we were–what we are–without words. I would rise up and shout this. I want to shout it. But the others wouldn’t understand. It would frighten them more than they’re already frightened. It’s not what the Eater would do.

Then he’s there–walking among us, nimbly dodging and hopping through the crowd–the Eater, still his own strange, laughing self. His stick body bounces on the balls of his corned feet, the necklace of roots flicks like fingers from his throat, and a weird smile warps his face, exactly as though no new tragedy has befallen his people while he was away.

He makes his way past Meki to where the Speaker sits. In her lap, he places the raggedly severed head of a shambler.

Not even Meki can deny it now: they look like we do, and the litany never revealed it. His face is pale. I’ve tried to tell him the weakness of words. But maybe until now he never believed me.

Even the Eater couldn’t protect us. But where words failed–where I was paralyzed, Meki disbelieving, the Speaker aged and weak–the Eater alone could act.

What if the shamblers had killed him?

This time, when he leaves us again, I don’t let him out of my sight.

 ***

He ambushes me in the woods, only a step from the edge of the shadows. His hand is still bloody from holding the head; the other is viscous and slick. “A girl can’t be Eater. Not after she begins to bleed. In the woods, it isn’t safe. After tasting the most dangerous plants, I am vulnerable, weak–but at least my scent doesn’t attract things that would eat me.”

“I know the taste of my blood,” I tell him. “Do you?”

The Eater ducks away. I think it’s to keep me from seeing his face.

Scrambling after him, awkward and noisy, somehow I manage to keep him in sight: silently leaping stones and fallen logs, slipping through vines, wriggling past roots and thorns man-monkey-snake. No wonder he walks the way he does.

He could lose me if he wanted. I remember what the Speaker said: he does what he does out of sacrifice. He does it to protect us. We’re far from the village now. Could I find my way back? I don’t know. My pace flags. I work hard in the village, I am strong–but we don’t run anymore, we don’t travel. Not like the shamblers. Not like him.

I slow–yet the Eater is still there, and the gap between us closes. He doesn’t speak, but his eyes question.

I wipe sweat from the wells of my eyes. “I know there are secrets you don’t share. When you die, those secrets will be lost.”

“And what if there were no way to share such secrets, no way to learn them save by experience?”

“If you won’t teach me, I’ll learn as you did.”

He bends for me a bough bearing a thick, green flower that has caught the rain. “Drink.”

What’s inside is only water, yet from the lips of that unknown flower, its flavor is changed, vegetal and sharp. My heartbeat calms. The ache flows from my muscles, down through my body and into the ground. I’ve never seen such a flower, never heard of its like, in the litany. Why hasn’t he shared this? Think how such a drink could aid us. Another sip and I could–

“Follow if you must. Don’t interfere.” The slap of leaves swinging back at his release, and he’s gone.

 ***

I follow him because I must: I’m lost; I need to know.

We move south, keeping up a pace that is the fastest my body can manage, but no faster. We pause, first he, then I, to study the print of a human-like foot–the pad and toes, no heel. We eat the pulpy, sweet flesh of a fruit with skin dimpled like a baby’s. We submerge ourselves in a fast-running stream. We sip delicately the replenishing nectar of another of the cuplike flowers. Will I know these things when I see them again? I wish I could ask him the names. But he’s the Eater. They don’t have names.

We cross a ravine atop a fallen tree; at the far side, he shows me the blood on his shin. “I scrape my palm on a rough branch as I climb. I can’t get back the blood and skin I’ve lost; it’s no longer mine but belongs among the moss. But I can gain new flesh, if only I can reach the tree’s far branch and taste its fruit.

“Of the five doorways through which we never pass but come to know the world, taste is the one we can best control. In our village, at the Speaker’s word and by virtue of my sacrifice, we are permitted to neglect that privilege. Devouring and expelling without thought, we forget that process by which what we eat–in replenishing our spirits, our flesh, holding us back from disintegration–becomes indistinguishable from our own selves.

“Don’t make that mistake in the forest, or you won’t live to be my apprentice.”

In my belly, the flush of success mingles with the shiver of the flower’s nectar. He is teaching me. The Eater.

 ***

Near dusk, we arrive at the camp of the shamblers. At the hill crest where I first begin to scent their musk, their grease-stained fires, he stops me, stained hand hovering before my lips.

He unthreads one of the string of thumb-sized, yellow roots he carries tied around his neck. “Don’t eat it. Carry it with you awhile, breathe its scent. When you feel you are prepared, cut it open and taste a few drops of the milk.”

Prepared for what? I want to ask. His hand prevents me, redolent of pitch and blood.

“Words,” the Eater whispers, “allow us to share what we could not, letting many think and act as one. But a category of experience exists for which no words have been invented, and if they were, would not suffice. The Speaker understands this; it is her weakness. Your brother does not. Of the two, his danger is the greater.”

I string the root round my neck on a thin vine like his own.

“Hide.”

He leaves at an angle to the slope, moving fast, with long strides; I know because I see the saplings shudder in his wake. But when their movement ceases, he leaves no other sign: no sound, no glimpse. Seeing nothing, I begin to doubt: did he circle back? Did he stop to watch me from below, to be certain I don’t follow? Did he go on, so quiet in his springing walk-fall-tumble that I wouldn’t know him from a bird?

I climb a tree, one thick and steady so my movements won’t reveal me. I sit in a crook, squinting through leaves into the camp. I wait. The root smells like a root–of strong earth and chalk. There is wind in the trees, and the color-thief bird cries the same warning over and over like it’s the only word it knows.

I don’t know how long I sit there. The sun moves as if caught among branches, then is gone.

 ***

The shamblers are eating. A meal of flesh seared over fire–they cook, just like we cook. Birds don’t cook their food. Neither do monkeys, forest dogs, tooth cats. People.

And the Eater walks right into their camp, right up to their fire, as though he’s one of them. He moves like they do. In his face, by the bits of it I can see in red light and leaf shadow, there is something like I saw in that woman’s face–the shambler woman with the child. I recognize it in the Eater’s face as I did not in the Speaker’s. This is how the Eater looks when his body returns to our village without him inside. Is this where he goes?

They took our people in the night like they’ve done before. I don’t see any of our people now. Except the Eater.

They let him eat with them. He shares their food, their meat. Do they know him? I don’t understand. Expressions, postures, movements, half-obscured by the screen of leaves. Meki might tell me, were he here, that seeking comprehension of these things is the same as deciphering words. He’d say I fabricate a gulf of understanding that doesn’t exist, a gulf no different from Soma, that great illusionary life- and barrier-destroying fungus of our mutual dream. He’d say there’s no escaping words, no matter how deep I go into the woods, no matter who I follow.

The Eater, who consorts with shamblers, who keeps for himself the replenishing secret of the pitcher-flower, who has tasted the yellow root’s milk and the froth from the bone-rattle tree, would say some things exist for which words have not been invented and could never suffice.

With arms and fingers soiled with juices, ash and grease, they eat, stripping roasted flesh from slick-white bone, tossing what’s left back into the fires. I watch, unable to interpret what I see, resisting the sick knot at my bowels telling me without words that I shouldn’t be here. I watch, until the winds shift in the night, the branches bend back like the flanks of Soma, and for the first time I see clearly the shapes of those bones: the five-fingered hands and heeled feet that surmount them. And I suddenly know where all our lost people have gone.

The shamblers–and the Eater–have devoured them.

I slide-scrape my way down, out of the tree, scraping arms and thighs against rough bark, leaving skin behind. I run. With no thought for where I go except away, nor for the clumsy, crashing noise my flight creates, numb to the lash of leaves and vines, the sting of superficial wounds, numb, for a time, to the cavernous rushing of breath through my lungs, to the silence of the dark woods around me, I run.

 ***

Gasping, I run until the dry leaves slip from beneath my bloodied feet. They are behind me–they must have seen me, must have heard my flight. I must get to the village, to warn them what has happened to the Eater, what he has become: a wordless thing, a shambler.

But I have to catch my breath. And in all the wind-shimmering, moon-bright woods through which I’ve passed, there has been no sign of the replenishing flower. Where am I? How far have I come? Without him to lead me, I’ll never find my way.

I lie there panting, until the leaves itch and impress their shapes into my skin. How long has he been one of them? How long since he first came from the woods with that blankness in his eye, that stiffness in his step? And I envied him, wanted to be him.

If I knew what he knew….

The yellow root strangles me, its vine clenched about my throat, its weight like a stone on my chest. I snatch it off, snapping the vine, and crush it in my weak hand, not looking, but unable to avoid its dark, mineral scent. A hard knot of matter, knobbed and warm with my own heat, as much like something expelled from human flesh as to a thing pulled from the body of the earth. Why did the Eater carry it? Why did he give it to me, before he went into the shamblers’ camp to…?

I close my eyes to rippling leaves, and in the hot and red-veined darkness, I think back to the times he came home empty from the woods, before the first shambler ever appeared.

I spring to my feet, teetering, blood rushing to my head.

The Speaker knows of the bone-rattle tree. She named it in the litany: the way its wounds froth when the driller-bird has pierced its skin; the way that froth, on human lips, reproduces the same pain and delirium. But it wasn’t the bone-rattle fever that numbed the Eater to words. I have tended him, wiped his cold sweat: even in the deepest throes of fever, he is still himself.

It must have been this yellow root.

I must get home. If I can warn the Speaker and Meki, perhaps, for all the flaws in their vocation, their wisdom can find an answer. For myself, I’m lost, and only the knot in my belly and the terror at my back hold me upright against exhaustion.

I hate this. I have worried my people and my family, with my absence, caused them fear. Now I’ll return and reveal that the one they depended on, their only true connection to the world they left behind, has abandoned and betrayed them. Were I Meki, were I the one who followed the safe and obedient path, followed it with such ambition and devotion, I would feel betrayed.

 ***

There, as the light breaks: the green flower, in a little vale between a tall barrier root and a moss-shrouded mound. I bend it to my lips, already tasting it in memory. But no nectar is cached within. A print in the moist ground, pad and toes, no heel. We passed this way–I have already drunk once from this fount.

 ***

My feet drag over the roots and leaves. The woods grow hot. A full day has passed since I followed the Eater away. I have escaped the petrifier-snakes that spiral the trunks of the bone-rattle trees. The wandering pack of forest dogs–I heard them from atop a bluff, but they never crossed my path. Did they mistake my scent for a shambler’s?

Nothing looks familiar. I wouldn’t have known that flower from another–but who besides the Eater could have drained it?

I slip crossing a log; the fall knocks my head–only a glancing blow, but I come alert again with a bloody rip above my shoulder blade that makes it hurt to run.

I haven’t heard anyone behind me. I should have known they wouldn’t follow–the shamblers move south, as the litany says. I wonder what they look for and whether they find it.

The shamblers move south, but the Eater has always returned.

I lie awhile in the cool of an overhang, pressing a poultice of ground-fan-leaf between my back and the stone. I eat berries and shoots when I find them–when I can remember their names, and never enough of them to satisfy me. I’ve never hunted meat. I wish she’d taught me that instead of weaving.

 ***

Nightfall of the second day, he finds me. The Eater, dead-eyed but walking, no less nimble than before he became this thing, finds me drinking at a brook. He drinks, and the water clouds red-brown downstream of where he sets his feet. He blocks my way across. He moves close. He smells of his deeds, and he carries a bloody bag.

He reaches out for me. I shrink back, realize he is reaching past me. Something wedged in a tree-crook: a round stone, one side stained purple with the juice of this tree’s tough-fleshed fruit. My people used this.

He springs back the way I’ve come, nimbler than I could have believed, along a trail I realize I’ve walked with Meki.

 ***

The Eater leads me home.

The woods have shrunk back from our village in the time we’ve been gone. The sun beats brighter on sharp stumps and heaps of branches wilting. And the trunks–the trunks wait at the edge of our village, upright, lodged shoulder-to-shoulder in the earth.

They’re building a thing Meki has named a Wall.

This was his plan. The Eater showed him the weakness of words; now he means to seal us off from all to which words cannot apply.

 ***

I find the Speaker sequestered in her hut alone, shivering, frail. The wound on her forearm has festered. “Meki is Speaker,” she says.

She takes the yellow root with shaking hand, but gives it back. “Keep it awhile.” She knew all along what the Eater was, where he went, what he did. I can’t tell her anything new.

 ***

When the village gathers for the litany that night, the Eater is himself again–whatever that means. Prancing madly through the crowd, he shows us the gory, stinking, horrible things he carried from the shamblers’ camp in the bloody bag.

Meki does not name them. We all go to bed, silent.

 ***

My brother sleeps in his own hut now. I’m still in the long hut with the children. Swinging in the hammock, the little sounds of their breaths all around me, I cradle the yellow root and think of Soma.

Michael J. DeLuca lives in Boston for the nonce, surrounded by civil war era graveyards and ramshackle taverns as far as the eye can see. He brews beer, bakes bread, hugs trees, builds websites, and operates weightlessbooks.com, a fledgling indie ebook site. His short fiction has appeared, among other places, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interfictions, Abyss & Apex, and most recently in the premiere issue of the French webzine Onirismes. He attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2005, and is a member of The Homeless Moon writers’ cabal. Read his blog at michaeljdeluca.com.

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