Fish the Outcast
Outside the ring of flaming torches, the nighting sky resembled the charred insides of the cave where he bedded down his sheep and goats. Panic clutched at his stomach. He had never been alone in the dark. Not even when hunting the wild three-horned boar. To contemplate walking alone amongst the mist-filled gravel pits without a firebrand to light his way, and then, if he did not slide into a stony grave, to face an unfriendly cluster was daunting.
He shook his head to rid it of his faint-hearted thoughts and called himself tremble-squirrel and tail-less skat to shame himself for his cowardice. Wasn't it the same for every young Easterner when they reached pushing-over season? Wasn't each of them feasted and feted beneath the Moon Goddess, and then at middle-nighting, Pushed-Over the border? Hadn't it been the same for thousands and thousands of seasons?
Wasn't his own Pushing-over feast being set out in the Ceremonial Tent this very moment? Hadn't his mother, Wing, cooked non-stop for five sunnings? Indeed many of the sweetmeats and fruit puddings had been baked earlier than that so they could soak in the fermented wine of the much-loved Western Zone golden figs. His pushing-over feast would be a grand and much talked about affair; Wing was a famed presenter of food, and his father, Thorn, had invited every Zoner family they were connected to. When his pushing-over time came there would be many hands, and not all friendly ones--possibly no friendly ones--to help Wing and Thorn push him into the Arid Zone.
He would miss Wing. She, who'd protected him from those who would have banished him to the Wilderness Mountains, or would have killed him because of his differences. Yet it was one of his differences--his near-white hair--that had allowed him to stay longer in his home zone than was normal. The pale hair hadn't grown upon his face until his seventeenth year, which was much later than his double brothers, who were Pushed-Over at fourteen when the dark hair on their upper lips could no longer be hidden.
He had not lived with Ant or Bird for five summers, and had only seen them from a great distance when they came to trade at the Eastern border.
Now, as he stared across at the invisible gravel wolds that surrounded the gravel pits, he wondered if he would recognise Ant or Bird. He also wondered how they were feeling about him joining their cluster. Ant would be against it. Bird perhaps not so virulently opposed, but not happy either.
Neither brother had liked him overly much. They had never invited him to play with them as they did other similar aged offspring. They had not cared for the teasing they received for having a freak for a brother. They had not wanted him with them while they tended the animals or roamed the hillsides hunting the wild three-horned boar. When Thorn insisted they take him with them, Ant had always blamed Fish when they returned empty-handed. Angrily, he would swear that grass-eyed Fish had brought them bad fortune. That he had called up the honey-twitterer to warn their quarry that they were close by or that he had cast the evil eye on them. Two evil eyes, Bird had echoed, as the colour green--other than for animal pastures and trees--was believed to be evil.
From an early age, when he heard them vowing that he was not their true blood sibling, he'd known they were ashamed of him. For although Wing dyed his hair and eyebrows with wild purple onion juice to darken them, his straight, thin nose and bright green eyes could not be disguised. He was a Mega Throwback; and Ant and Bird had fought many a stone-throwing battle because of it.
At his birth, as was done with all Outcasts, Thorn had advocated smothering him. It was the custom with all misshapen or handicapped new born. His mother's sisters had suggested abandoning him in the Wilderness Mountains for the carnivorous tree gorfs to eat, and the Lake Tsae villagers had agreed. But Wing had fought them all. She was almost past childbearing age, she argued. This would be her last child. She would entitle him Fish, as he was born in the Cycle of the Fish deity, servant of the Moon Goddess, and she would raise him as an Eastern Zoner. And she had; but Thorn had never accepted him, Ant and Bird had openly disliked him and the villagers just tolerated him.
Yet without these double brothers he would not survive the harsh living of the Arid Zone. A quarter of the Pushed-Over Zoners didn't. His older sister, Grass, had lost her body-spirit within four seasons and Wing had sung her death-song for the same amount of sunnings.
Fish did not remember Grass, as he was only seven years living when she was Pushed-Over, but he remembered Ant and Bird. Both had the same dark brown hair curling to their shoulders or tied back in Eastern fashion, wide hooked noses, deep brown eyes and arched brows, all inherited from their father. But as alike as they were outwardly, they were the opposite inwardly. Ant, demanding and bossy, insisted on being right and always first; Bird, the handsomer, quiet and thoughtful, accepted his brother's leadership, and always there at his shoulder to back him up.
Like all Pushed-Over Zoners, his double-brothers must remain in the Arid Zone until their twenty-first Crossing-Back summer. Only then could they return to their Eastern Zone village, and only then if they had stolen a female from another cluster to bring back for their Joining Ceremony. As their Crossing-Back time would be before Fish's Crossing-Back time, Fish wondered if they had chosen their females and if the females had agreed.
He did not think of his own Joining Ceremony as most young males of his age did, because it was common knowledge that he would not have one. No female from his Eastern home zone or indeed from the Western or Southern Zones would agree to a Mega Throwback stealing her. A Mega Throwback was worse than a Northerner Zone Body Harvester. As for him stealing a female from the Northern Zone... To steal one of those untouchables was unthinkable. But if he did, where would they cross-back to? Neither zone would accept them.
No, there would be no Joining Ceremony for him. This had been made clear by Thorn as his pushing-over time drew near. If he lasted his sixteen seasons in the Arid Zone, he could not cross-back without a female, so his only choice would be to go into the Wilderness Mountains and seek one there. Should there be one to seek, as none had ever been seen other than the strange-limbed freaks exhibited by the Wilderness Circus and the disgustingly dirty Wilderness Circus gypsies.
But that was in the future, and Fish had enough to worry about; what with the crossing of the gravel pits and the finding of his double brothers' cluster.
A small child, tugging on the back of his leather jerkin, told Fish in an awed voice that the Pushing-over Feast was ready.
Fish arrived at the Ceremonial Tent as the guests were jostling each other for places on the benches set around the long table. Their happy voices, shrill with the expectancy of Wing's food, filled the goat-skinned tent, making it billow outwards with the force of their laughter. Fish took his place between Thorn and Wing and watched the tent's walls suck and flap, and knew that it wasn't their laughter that caused it. It was the East Wind skimming down the Wilderness Mountains. The mischievous East Wind that couldn't wait to help push-him over into four years of inhospitable living as a scavenger of Megalopolis's rubbish tips.
Wing's table was covered with wooden bowls jammed against clay bowls and carved platters jammed against woven platters, all stacked high with delicacies. Dishes were set out on the earthen floor for the children. In a corner four musicians played on Western Zone string and reed instruments. Musicians were an unusual expense but Thorn could afford to be generous, especially as he would be more than pleased to see the back of his third son.
Fish had no illusions about his father. Thorn had fed him, trained him in the traditions of their home zone village, taught him to hunt and fight, and on cold nightings sitting around their home tent fire, had passed on memories of his time as an Outcast. But he had never loved him. He had never laughingly tossed him in the air as he had Bird and Ant. He had never held him on his knee to played finger and string games as he had his nephews and nieces, or rocked him the way he rocked little Flea. Fish knew that having sired a Mega Throwback would always be an embarrassment to Thorn, and that to not have him sleeping in his home zone tent any longer was reason enough for the buying of copious food and the paying of expensive musicians.
Wing watched her youngest son with loving eyes. As this would be the last time for many seasons that his stomach would be full, she tapped his arm to get his attention. "Just one more morsel," she begged, feeding him with fingers stained bright yellow from the spices she'd used. "Just another bite," she whispered, her large brown eyes already full of the tears she would shed when he was gone. "Food is scarce in the Arid Zone."
When she could push no more food into his mouth, and everyone at the table had eaten so much their stomachs were tight and painful, Fish's younger male cousins came for him.
Full of excited importance at being the ones to prepare him for his pushing-over, they argued among themselves as to who should lead him to the Dressing Tent. Finally the second eldest took hold of his sleeve, but not his hand. They never touched his hand.
Inside the Dressing Tent he was handed a pair of flax leggings, a blood-red pushing-over kilt, three flax shirts--worn one on top of the other--a pair of sturdy sandals that tied around his ankles, and a goat-skin belt to hold his knife and five-piped flute pouches. These clothes would have to last until he outgrew them or wore them out. There would be no more except for cast-offs gleaned from the Mega's rubbish.
Outside the Dressing Tent a bevy of young female cousins waited to lead him back to the Ceremonial Tent. They whirled and twirled around him like pale green moths as he crossed the dark space between the two. But they did not touch him for good luck as they would have touched his double brothers. They feared the bad fortune that touching him might bring them, and their fear made him sad; sad enough to cry. He blinked his eyes dry. Thorn would never forgive him if he appeared weak in front of their guests.
As he entered the tent, the music stopped, and a heavy silence fell. Wing was the first to stand. Lifting high Fish's bowl and cup, she smashed them together then threw the shards onto the ground where the children, with faces covered in grease and honey, stamped them into the earth. Next to stand was Thorn. Snapping Fish's hunting spear and tearing a hole in his hunting net, he threw these to the ground to be crushed into splinters and pulp by the now screaming children.
Suddenly the torches at each end of the tent were doused, and in the smoke-filled darkness, Fish became the enemy. With a roar, as if the hundred guests were one enormous animal with one hundred mouths, they rose to their feet and with raised hands they pushed him out of the tent and up the rise towards the gravel pits.
The border between the Eastern Zone and the Arid Zone had no wall, bramble fence, or metal gate. It was simply a curved line burnt into the earth made by the Megas' burning sticks. On the Eastern Zone's side grew the tough grass loved by Fish's goats and sheep, while on the Arid Zone's side not even a weed flourished among the knuckle-sized stones that covered the lifeless soil. The crowd stopped in front of the line each careful not to step over it. Each parent holding back his or her excited offspring with warnings of instant death should their feet touch the Arid Zone soil before their allotted pushing-over time.
Fish's parents had the honour of the first push. Wing handed Fish two sacks of food then pushed him gently, so gently that it felt as if her outstretched fingers were trying to pull him back. Thorn pushed sharply as if with relief to see the last of this troublesome, unwanted offspring. Next came the jabbing pushes of Wing and Thorn's brothers and sisters and Fish's younger cousins, and finally the rest of the guests. Even the smallest were held up to push him. Each must lay their hands upon his back or shoulders. Each must send him on his Outcast journey.
Fish tried to stifle the hurt he felt. It was the custom, he reminded himself, hadn't he pushed many a young Zoner over the border? Now when it was his turn, why did each flat-handed shove, each soft childish press of fingers feel like a blow?
"You are an Outcast now," they shouted as he stumbled across the line. "Don't come back until your Crossing-Back time."
"Or don't come back ever if you don't find an Eastern female to steal," muttered Fish, repeating Thorn's words.
As instructed, Fish walked in a straight line towards the west. At the top of the first wold he looked back. The Ceremonial Tent torches were being doused. Soon he would not know where the tent was and would not have been able to find it should he wish to double back. Not that he would double back. Returning before his allotted time would bring great shame to Thorn and Wing, and banishment or death to him. In his entire seventeen summers he had not known of a Zoner who'd done it.
Overhead, the stars were covered with a fine net of cloud, and around his feet the rising mist made walking the tightrope track around the gravel pits perilously dangerous.
To be buried alive on one's first nighting in the Arid Zone would be a terrible thing. Yet it had happened to others. Fish wondered if their ghosts were still in the pits waiting for their death songs to be sung, for without a body there could be no death song to send them on their way to their birth cycle deity. And was it just gravel he felt around his ankles or was it ghostly fingers trying to grab hold of him to pull him down?
He began to shake each foot after each step until he came to a tottering halt fearing that one more step would hurl him into an abyss. Miraculously, as if to show him the way, the Moon Goddess's face suddenly peeked out from behind the clouds and shone on the metal embedded in the gravel.
Fish thanked the Moon Goddess and asked for her guiding light to continue, along with the gift of a cape of invisibility to cover him until he reached safety. He had often asked for such a cape while hunting at nighting, and due to the success with his spear he believed he had received it, as it was known by all that those born in the Cycle of the Fish were much favoured by the Goddess.
But even with her guidance, after so many twists and turns he began to wonder if he were going in the right direction. Wing had warned him of how easy it was to lose one's way amongst the many criss-crossing paths, especially if there were no stars to navigate with. So although Fish could always find north even on the blackest of nightings, he feared that he was already lost.
Five steep wolds later, and with much relief, he reached the edge of a cliff that Wing had described to him. Below it, spread out along a curved horizon, and shining like a false sun's birth, were the lights of Megalopolis. The five-walled silver city that both Wing and Thorn had spoken of in voices mixed with fear and a strange lingering affection.
"Megalopolis." How often had he lain awake wishing he could go in search of it? To see what a city full of Megas looked like. But to leave the Eastern Zone before his Pushing-over Ceremony or without an Outcast cluster to go to, to protect him, would have been fatal. Only criminals escaped into the Arid Zone without being Pushed-Over and they were either killed by Rebels or were unfortunate to reach the Northern Zone Barren Islands. Here, on these inhospitable specks of land surrounded by the wild Northern Sea, the Body Harvesters offered them a treacherous and short-lived welcome. A reprieve that lasted long enough for them to produce one or two offspring before being executed and their bodies used as fertiliser for the Northerner's sea-grass fields.
So Fish had waited impatiently for his facial hair to grow. Waited as he waited now, just as impatiently, for his double brothers to appear, while he stared at the mighty silver city that at last he would be able to enter.
How could such a place exist when it had so little productive land within its metal walls? How could it survive when it bred no animals, other than miniature cats as palace pets or huge mastiffs as palace watchdogs? How could these Megas, who Wing described as tall, slender and willowy, be the same as the robust Easterners; or for that matter, the same as him?
Yet Wing had sworn that before the one thousand and one years of separation, the Megas and Zoners had been the same. That they had only grown apart after the invention of the Knowledge Chip. But now, after so much time, they were so different that they could barely understand each other's languages.
"Many of their words sound the same but have opposite meanings," she'd warned. "To survive you must learn the meanings of all their words. And never forget, without their Knowledge Chip power of how to control the weather; without their halting of the Wilderness mountain floods and their regulating of the Northern Sea rainfall, our crops and animals would not exist. Just as without our crops and meat they would not exist."
Once when he was very young and had not learned to curb his questioning in front of non-family members, Fish had asked what would happen if the Zoners refused to pay the Mega's twice yearly pol tax. That instead the Easterners demanded the Megas' Knowledge Chips in exchange for the Easterner's food?
Thorn and Wing's friends had become horrified at his childish words. Some clapped their hands as if the sharp noise would erase the bad fortune his words might bring them. Others covered their mouths to show that these were not their words or thoughts. That only Fish had spoken and thought them.
"The Megas' atmospheric scientists would cause a flood that would drown us all," gasped Thorn's brother.
"Insert metal Knowledge Chips into our brains! Never!" gasped a friend of Wing.
"We could learn to read and write," argued Fish, who had only that sunning been taught by Wing to write his name in the Ancient Pre-Knowledge script, a talent her own mother had passed on to her.
"Who wants to play with scribbles on paperbark?" giggled a small female, playfully pushing Fish off his stool. Her mother quickly dragged her away from the Mega Throwback child and his foolish questions.
"Little owl is right. What need have we of scribbles?" guffawed the little female's father. "I know how to sow, reap and eat. A Knowledge Chip won't make me fatter, give me a bigger tent, or breed me a large herd. Believe me, when I was an Outcast I saw nothing in that perdition of a city that I want to learn more about. I am happy to pay the Mega Tax as long as those Chipheads leave us alone."
Although Fish knew how stupid his questions sounded and how annoyed they made Thorn, he was unable to stop them. It was as if he had hurled himself over a cliff and must continue falling until he splattered on the rocks. "But there must be a way to control our own rain, our own sun."
"Enough!" interrupted Thorn, with a look that said if he could have seared Fish's tongue from his mouth he would have.
Later, when their guests had gone, each leaving earlier than usual, and Wing had splashed the inside of their home tent with musk and lavender oil to remove Fish's bad thoughts, Thorn punished Fish severely for making a fool of him.
Now with his mind bursting with the same questions, Fish didn't see the five shadows creeping up around him. He did not hear the muted sounds of their rag-covered sandals or the soft flap, flap of their garments until they appeared, as if by magic, out of the ground in front of him.
"Be you Fish?"
Fish's heart pounded behind his ribs. "Be you Ant or Bird?"
"Answer before asking?"
"I am Fish."
Two of the shadows stepped closer. A light-beam, similar to the one that Thorn had traded for recently, shone into Fish's face. Then it was turned to shine into the faces of the two shadows.
His double brothers were taller than he remembered, although not as tall as he. They were broader than Thorn, with shoulders as wide as the gate Fish had built to go across the mouth of his animals' cave. Their heads and half their faces were covered in sand-coloured cloth, and their stocky bodies covered in layers of sun-bleached garments encrusted with Arid Zone dust. Across their shoulders hung weapons that were nothing like the long thin spears traded to the Easterners by the Western Zoners. These weapons were made of metal pipes and twisted wire, with long extended rubber thongs drawn back and anchored to a cross section. How they worked was beyond Fish's understanding.
His brothers removed their scarves to show their faces and each welcomed him with cold, suspicious eyes and an expressionless nod. Wing had explained that this was how it would be. That Fish must prove his worth before the cluster would offer him anything more than nominal acceptance. There were also his differences that would cause many problems for the cluster and their coldness would be expected. So it was not surprising to Fish that Ant's cluster were more enthusiastic about the food he carried than about meeting him.
Ant grabbed the sacks and emptied them onto the gravel, where, by the glow of the Mega-light, the five cluster members snatched greedily at the contents, stuffing the spicy food into their mouths as fast as they could. Within seconds the goat's meat pies, wild tantenberry tarts, spiced puddings, sliced meats and bread were gone.
Ant tossed the sacks back to Fish and then with a flick of the light-beam he introduced the others. "This is Weed the oldest, Branch the youngest and Spider... the tallest. Now we must go. We have a long way to travel before middle-nighting and we are late."
The light-beam had barely touched each face before it was flicked onto the track ahead and the cluster fell in line behind it, and Fish, who was last, was left with the impression of three pairs of hostile eyes almost hidden by their headgear.
Fish caught up with Bird who was in front of him. "What are we late for?"
"We must reach the Eastern Gateway before middle-nighting. But because this is moon madness nighting the route will be dangerous."
"What does moon madness mean?"
"Moon madness, little brother," snapped Ant, answering from the front of the line, "is what happens on a full-moon nighting when those imbecilic, dirt-burrowing Southerners drink too much Western fig wine before roaring around the Arid Zone in their monster vehicles searching for something to hunt."
"But I thought there were no animals in the Arid Zone."
Ant turned and glared at him. "Didn't Thorn tell you anything or are you as stupid as a ginee chick?"
Four weeks earlier when Thorn had met Ant at the Eastern border market to inform his eldest son that it was time for his youngest son's Pushing-over Ceremony, Ant had protested about Fish joining his and Bird's cluster.
"He is too much of a liability."
"He is your birth brother. We have kept him as long as we can so that your care taking will be short. But the villagers say he must go. That it is only fair as their offspring have gone or must go."
"Has he changed," asked Bird, who was never far from Ant. "Does he look more like us?"
Thorn turned away so that the Zoners and Outcasts bartering at the market would not hear him. "He is the same in colouring and stature as he ever was and although stronger and more muscular than a Mega, he is still too," His blunt work-worn hands twisted in his attempt to find the right words to describe his too tall, too slender son. "Thin," he concluded. "He also thinks differently. Wing is to blame for this. She has taught him the Ancient Pre-Knowledge Chip writing. It has made him ask foolish questions and think foolish thoughts. He does not understand the pattern of Eastern living. He dreams Mega dreams."
Ant's handsome face creased into a frown. "He will endanger us."
"He will endanger himself," added Bird.
Thorn nodded and then he patted both their shoulders affectionately, as he missed them greatly. "Be patient with him. I doubt he will survive three seasons and it will break Wing's heart when she sings his death-song."
Now as they jogged along the cliff's edge, Ant had his doubts about Fish surviving two seasons. His thin body did not look strong enough to outlast the many Megalopolis street fights or the Arid Zone Rebel battles that lay ahead. Nor did his legs look powerful enough to out-run the Southern Outcasts' monster vehicles or the Mega mastiffs. He was also too tall. A disguise would have to be found to hide his height from the Mega guards, otherwise their cluster would be banished from Megalopolis to scavenge amongst the already over-scavenged piles of Arid Zone rubbish.
Ant stopped at a dip in the cliff and they all waited while Spider, or was it Weed - Fish wasn't sure - climbed down a chain to a ledge almost three Zoner heights below. Suddenly, Ant swung round and tapped the pouch hanging from Fish's belt. "What do you carry in there?"
"A five-piped flute, it is my dearest possession."
"Then how important is this?" Ant tapped Fish's knife pouch.
"It is important for skinning wild boar but it doesn't bring me the same joy as my flute."
Ant threw back his head and laughed. As the sound echoed along the cliff face he blocked his mouth and shook his head helplessly at Fish.
"Be warned little brother. Unless you think of your knife differently you will be past-living within this nighting. None of us will give up our body-spirits to save you, we will be too busy saving ourselves."