Nomads

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: February 11, 2017

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Submitted: February 11, 2017

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Above, in the blue sky, dreamy white wisps of clouds were pushed by gentle currents of wind, while below, green hills rolled like soft waves in a calm sea, sheep meandering slowly about looking for sweet patches of grass. A sharp, salty taste flavoured the breeze, shaken into the air by the swirls and churns of the sea which ran parallel to the rolls of the hills. 

The midmorning sun, whose heat added a comfortable character to the air, stood bright and full above the tips of the hills, signaling the presence of activity on and around the tallest hill. On this hill stood a round dwelling, cobbled together by dried brown-red clay pounded into brick and laid in a circle, one atop the other, until only an entrance and a small opening for smoke at the top remained. 

At the base of the hill, a small river ran out into the sea, and, at it’s edge, a woman knelt. At her side, a pile of dirty laundry sat, consisting of the same simple tan linen tunics that everyone wore, tightened at the waist by a piece of flaxen string. She had a youthful body kept firm by daily toil, dark hair, a sharp face, but eyes that held a weak attention on the task at hand and had the cloudy quality of a sheep's eye after the death of the animal. 

On the steep edge of the hill, a golden haired boy plodded upwards with slow, lumbering steps. In his hands was a wooden bucket from which water periodically splashed out to feed the dry grass. 

At the hill's top, not far from the brick dwelling, a man stood in front of a bucket of water on a large boulder. He cupped his hands in the water and brought it up to splash his face, at the same time feeling his overgrown facial hair in his palms. The man was long past his youth, but his wavy hair was still golden and untouched by gray.

The boy waddled with the bucket and set it down in front of the boulder, spilling a touch more water as he did it. 

"You did well, Wex. There is more water in this bucket than the last," the man said. Wex looked at him, out of breath.

"Will you need another bucket?"

“No, but let’s go enjoy some bread. Come.” The two walked to the brick dwelling and Wex sat on the ground just outside the entrance, from which he could see the outstretched hills. The man brought an oval flatbread from inside, tore it in two equal pieces, gave a piece to the boy, and sat down.

“We’ll be bringing in the herd in a few days, maybe four or five. Do you know why?”

Wex bit off a piece of his bread. “So you can bring them to Lapos to sell and have their wool sheered,” he said with a mild disinterest, instead looking out over the river toward the grazing sheep.

“Good, yes. But, this time I want you to come with me.” Wex turned his attention to the man with a sharp turn of his head.

“Really? To Lapos?”

“Yes. You know how to raise sheep, but you need to learn how to bring them to market. Without those skills you will fail as a shepherd.”

“Oh, of course,” Wex said. “Will we go do other things? In Lapos?” 

“If we can fetch a good price and have time to spare. I am not unaware that you have never been to Lapos, though you would do best to keep your mind on the task at hand,” the man said, sitting with his arms crossed, silently pleased with himself.

“Yes, father.” Then, he said, as an afterthought, “Is Pila coming?”

“No. Pila is staying here.”

Wex sat chewing his bread slowly, lost in thought. He imagined the different tales he’d been told come alive; about a city with a thousand buildings, people that flooded the city in the morning, lions and elephants in massive cages, and men who fought to the death in even larger ones. 

The woman at the edge of the river had finished and began to make her way up the hill with the bundle of wet clothes.

“Wex, when you are finished with your bread, go across the river to the herd and see that none have gone too far. Remember to collect any dung patties you see for the fire.”

“Yes, father.” Wex stuffed the last of his bread in his mouth and ran to go do as he was bid.

The man followed behind Wex, walking down the hill until he reached the woman. They snatched brief looks at each other before averting their eyes.

“Here, let me help you with that,” the man said. He took half of the wet clothes and followed her up the hill. They walked in silence.

At the top of the hill, they set down the laundry in one pile beside a clothes drying line. 

“Pila, I am bringing most of the herd to town in a week’s time,” the man said. Pila, without interest, turned away, and began to hang up the linens on the rope line.

“Tend the rest of the herd while I’m gone. I will see whether I can bring back some olives, I know you like them.” 

She didn’t seem to care.

 “I’m taking Wex with me to Lapos.”

Pila hung the last wet tunic on the line.

“You’ll be gone for over a month,” she said.

“Yes.”

“You must leave Wex.” 

The man let out a slow sigh. 

“I know you weren’t accustomed to this way of life, but you have lived with us for over four years now. Wex must go.”

Her voice had a quiet tremble. “I can’t wait here for a month. Not alone.” 

“You must. You are my wife and I would not leave you here alone if I didn’t think it necessary and you incapable.”

Pila stood expressionless, eating her anger and fear, though it never digested the way she’d hoped. 

“Of course, I will do what I can, Quez.”

“Good.” He turned away from her and she turned away from him.

Quez strode over to the other side of the dwelling and sat down on a wooden stump in front of a large barrel filled with chunky, curdling milk. A long, wooden plunger stuck out which he alternately pulled out and pushed in, heaving and molding into solid form the contents inside. He sat repeating the action the entire afternoon, throwing his energy and focus into the act so that his mind would have none to commandeer, none to think about the fractured state of his life. He immediately fell asleep that night, exhausted. 

Pila turned to gather what things she needed to make a soup for that night’s dinner. A cube of salt, some sheep’s bones, wild plants, and ground grain stewed in a pot of water sitting above a small fire in the center of the brick dwelling. She stirred the pot as it came to a slow boil, chewing over the same few thoughts like a cow chews cud, swallowing only when the cud has been chewed into a fine paste. When the taste of the cud was unpleasant enough, she would spit into the boiling pot, taking care to make sure neither Quez nor Wex would know. That night, she laid down and let the soft, steady hum of her thoughts coax her to sleep.

Wex spent the afternoon among the sheep, talking to them and telling them, and himself, of the wonders to be found at Lapos. He was the last to fall asleep that night, staying out late to stare up at the sky and watch the stars. When he did enter, he slept on the pile of straw on the other side of the dwelling, furthest away from the sleeping Quez and Pila. He dreamt of good and fantastic things, things which only came to a person when they dreamt of that which, for them, had never been seen before. 

The following days were filled with the preparation for the coming journey to Lapos. Provisions for the next month had to be made ready. Two sheep were taken from the herd and butchered, salted down, and placed in a barrel for Pila or in a rucksack for Quez and Wex. A small oven attached to the brick dwelling was in constant use. A paste of grain, salt, and water would be placed on a flat rock heated by being placed in the middle of a fire. The result a hard, long lasting bread not much softer than the rock on which it was baked. 

Quez spent half of a day repairing an old fishing spear, carving out a new shaft, tying onto it the spearhead, then taking a rock and sharpening the tip to a modest point. The carving knife was to be left with Pila, for her to use as she needed. Wex objected, saying that the roads could be dangerous and that they, meaning him and Quez, could have need of it. Quez, however, said that if the roads were dangerous, then their home was just as dangerous as the road, and he would not leave Pila without defense. 

They left on the sixth morning. Quez, Wex, and Pila stood in front of the brick dwelling they shared. Quez had a large rucksack slung across his back, filled with cured meat, cheese, tough bread, and wild plants. In his right hand he held the refurbished fishing spear, which stood as tall as his shoulders. Wex carried a smaller rucksack and held a carved walking stick fashioned from a fallen branch. Pila handed them breakfast, a fresh piece of cooked lamb and a piece of hard bread to nibble on after that was done. 

She watched as they started down the hill towards the river. There were no hugs, just curt goodbyes.

Quez and Wex worked together to gather the sheep in a compact herd then to drive them forward along the river, staying at the fringes to keep the herd together. They followed the river the entire morning, stopped to have a brief meal, then carried on into the afternoon.

“We follow the river for two days, until we come to a fork, a split of the river into two. The split of the river to the right will take us where we need to go. Remember the route, you will take it yourself when I am gone,” Quez said.

“Follow the river for two days, then go right,” Wex repeated. 

“Tomorrow we will pass through a thick forest. The river runs through it. You will need to be careful never to let any of the sheep wander too far from the rest, else we risk losing them. We need not worry about wolves, but hungry men are never far away from a shepherd’s trail. You will learn quickly.”

“Yes father.”

“Are you hungry?”

“A little.”

Quez swung his rucksack around and reached in, bringing out an oval piece of flatbread. He pressed his thumb into the bread then released the pressure, creating a depression that filled back into shape. He handed this to Wex.

“Pila baked this with paste that she added boiled sheep fat to. It is soft, but it will not keep for too long. She baked that especially for you.”

He took a bite and shook his head. “I don’t think she did.”

“Of course she did, she is very fond of you.”

Wex shook his head again. “I don’t think she is. Pila has no soul.”

Quez involuntarily inhaled a sharp breath. 

“Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know what a soul is?”

Wex thought about this. “It’s what’s inside of you.”

“It is you. Everyone has a soul.”

“Then why did Pila tell me I have no soul.”

Quez furrowed his eyebrows, recoiling as if slapped in the face.

“When did Pila tell you that?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe two weeks ago.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?”

“Yes.”

They walked without talking, driving the sheep along the river.

“Will we see lions in Lapos?”

Quez was relieved. “Perhaps. They go around to all the big cities, one at a time. If not lions, then horses with necks as tall as a tree, or men who make mud balls disappear.”

“What about elephants?”

"Maybe. Wex, when you are older, all of this will pass into your care. Is that what you want?"

Wex contorted his face, struck by the sudden pivot and unsure how to proceed. "Raising sheep is noble, and good. Without us, there would be no meat to fill our stomachs or wool to warm our bodies."

"An answer fit to give to a god. Wex, I am no god. Better to have you tell me your dreams now than to have you resent me in old age. What is it you want?"

“When I grow old?”

“From your life. Are you too young to know?”

Wex hesitated again.

"I want to be a Hero like Achilles.”

“A hero?”

“Yes, I want to fight with shield and spear. That is more noble than raising sheep.”

“To fight against another man can be noble, but only as noble as the cause you fight for.”

“How do you know your cause is noble?”

“You can’t know your cause is noble, or right, or good. You just have to believe that it is.”

“What if the other person thinks their cause is noble too?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to figure that out by yourself.”

At this, Wex lapsed into thought.

 

They traveled along the river until the sun left only an orange glow in the sky, making a camp along the river. A wall of trees was visible in the distance and shielded them from what was beyond.

They awoke the next morning at the sun’s rise and had a breakfast of cheese and hard bread before continuing to drive the herd along the river.

They stopped on the outskirts of the forest before continuing in. To Wex, the forest looked like it stretched infinitely in either direction. He couldn’t see an end to it. The forest clung to the river’s edge, however, they made progress quickly and the sun was just beginning to dip low in the west when Quez pointed out the split in the river.

“From there, follow the right branch for a week before the river forks again. The entire river system runs like the veins in your arm, branching this way and that. We will make camp at the river’s fork,” Quez said. “Stop, did you hear that?”

Wex strained his ears to hear over the sounds of the sheep’s hooves beating the ground.

“A deer?”

“I am no deer. Actually, I think you are the deer in this case.” The voice was deep but warm, coming from a young man on a chestnut horse who’d appeared ahead of their herd. He held a spear in his right hand and gestured with his left. 

Half a dozen other men stepped out from behind the trees to their right, some with spears and some with axes. Quez tightened his grip on his spear. 

The sheep stopped and waited.

“What do you want?” Quez said, staring at the man who spoke. The hair on his beard quivered as he ground his teeth.

Wex looked around at all the men. They had their weapons at their sides, and curious looks in their eyes.

“Your sheep,” the leader said.

“And why would I give you my herd?”

Wex inched closer to Quez, fearful of his father’s defiance, though he knew they had little beyond the sheep.

“We will leave you and your little companion in the river if you do not.”

Quez considered the situation. 

“Do you have no gods?”

The leader raised an eyebrow but did not speak, instead encouraging his horse forward. 

“Put down your spear, I only want to tell you a story.” Wex saw the other men edge closer to them. Quez must have seen it too because he relaxed his grip on his spear and pointed it away from them.

The leader stopped in front of Quez to tower over him, then leaned over in his saddle as if to share a secret.

"Riders, just like us, rode to my village when I was a boy. They burned the homes and rounded up the people like those sheep, and burned them too. They let them go find water to douse the fire and perhaps live beyond the day, then shot them as they ran, making a game of it." 

He straightened his back so he once again towered over the father. "If there are gods, then they are no better than men. I spit on the gods."

“Then why take my sheep? You would be doing the same thing to us.”

“Men must eat. You will live beyond today.”

“A small consolation.”

“You will live.”

“We will die slowly.”

“A slow death is better than an immediate death, no?”

“Watching your family starve is worse than watching them burn.”

The leader paused to consider this. He looked at the other men in his group, each in turn. They waited to see what he would say.

“You’re wrong,” he said.

“No, I’m not.”

“Fine, you’re right.”

No one moved.

He continued. 

“The rules have changed. I will still be taking your sheep, but only one of you may leave our chance encounter alive.” He pulled on the reins of his horse to back away from Quez. The other men inched forward, crushing the leaves beneath their feet, tightening the circle around Quez and Wex.

Quez looked to the river on his left, and then to Wex on his right. Wex was all but frozen, only his eyes dared to move between the men. 

“Wex.” The sound of his name breathed life into the still boy.

“Father.”

“Go back to Pila. I will meet you back there.” 

Wex stood there with his rucksack and his carved walking stick, looking at the leader, looking at the men around him, and looking at Quez.

He obediently backed away.

“Let him go,” the leader said. One of the men moved out of the half circle to let Wex go by.

Once out of the circle, Wex turned his back on the group and heard, “you can fight me if you want. It might be fun.”

Wex ran, trying to make the pounding of his footsteps on the ground match the pounding he felt in his chest. He threw his walking stick into the river to gain speed, hearing it hit the water. Further away, he heard something heavy hit the water, but this sound didn’t register in Wex’s mind just then.

 

Pila nibbled on a small piece of soft bread she’d baked that morning. The sight of what few sheep were left calmed her, so she sat staring at them, eating, her mind an empty space. 

It had been three days since Quez and Wex had left for Lapos. 

The day they’d left had been the easiest. Pila spent her time collecting materials to weave a wicker basket, and it wasn’t until it was dark that she realized she would be going to sleep alone. 

The day after they’d left had been the hardest. Pila woke up but did not get up. Instead, she huddled on her straw mattress, clutching her rough linen blanket, staring at the brick walls in front of her. She noted the grain of the brick and the grooves that separated one brick from another, following them with her eyes. She’d been asleep more than she’d been awake that day, and she’d made sure to sleep before the sun set.

The day before Wex came back had been bearable. Pila woke up feeling nauseous and bloated, so she got up to go see the sheep. She went to each sheep and pet the warm, velvety skin on the back of their heads, watching them squint their eyes and shy away from her touch. She decided to bring the sheep to the top of the hill and, that night, she was lulled to sleep by the soft songs of sheep at rest.

The sound of startled sheep roused her from her blank state. At the bottom of the hill she saw two sheep following a boy making his way along the river and up the hill. 

It was Wex. 

Pila stood up and eyed him, startling the sheep around her. He looked up at her from the bottom of the hill, then started walking up at a slow pace. He reached the top and presented himself in front of her. They looked at each other but said nothing. He dropped his rucksack. Bread, cheese, and salted meat spilled out onto the ground.

“What did you do?” Pila said.

Wex shrugged his shoulders, leaving them hunched.

“Why did he send you back? You were lazy?”

“No.”

“Well then why?”

“Some men surrounded us and took the sheep.”

Pila drew a heavy breath. She looked Wex over. 

“Where is your father?”

“He’s coming.”

“Why isn’t he with you.”

“He told me to go first.”

“Was it your fault? Did you make too much noise, attract them with your loud stomping? You are such a vile child.”

Wex sat down and hunched himself over, picking up a piece of cheese and nibbling it. Pila stood over him and continued.

“I told him to leave you here. What will we eat now? You’re just bad.”

Pila picked up a piece of bread and threw it at Wex. The bread bounced off his head and landed beside him. 

“You don’t have anything to say for yourself?”

When he said nothing, she left him there and went inside the dwelling.

Wex turned around to face the river and waited. When he was finished nibbling his cheese, he took the bread thrown at his head and began to nibble on that. He didn’t see Pila again that day.

The evening came and still he sat there. A sheep had come to sit beside him so he rested his head on it’s warm, fleecy stomach and fell asleep.

Wex woke up alone, his head resting on the grass. Sheep were already grazing nearby. The sun was just popping up from behind the hills across the river, to the east.

He walked over to the brick dwelling and peeked in to find Pila curled up on her straw mat, her linen blanket pulled up to her ears so that it no longer covered her ankles.

He walked out and went over to the bread, meat, and cheese that had spilled out of his rucksack. He crouched to collect it all and put it back into the rucksack, then carried the rucksack into the dwelling, took out a piece of bread and cheese, and went outside to eat. 

Pila woke up and came out of the dwelling. Wex had sat down, and now turned his head to look at her, and she turned to look at him. Wex saw that Pila had dead eyes. 

Wex turned to look out towards the river.

Pila turned to look out towards the river.

“Is he coming back?”

“I don’t know.”

The day went on. Then night came. They slept. The next day came, and the next day went.

Wex and Pila sat across from each other in the dwelling, chewing on hard bread and dried meat, waiting.

“He said everyone has a soul,” Wex said.

“Who?”

“My father.”

“You don’t.”

“He said everyone does. I do. You do.”

“I have a soul. You don’t.”

“But he said everyone does.”

“Stop talking.”

Wex looked at Pila.

“Don’t look at me,” Pila said.

“Why?”

“Don’t. I said so.”

“Fine.”

Wex looked down and began using the dirt floor as a canvas, drawing a tree with his finger. Pila looked at Wex.

“Why isn’t he back yet? What happened there?”

“Where?”

“When they took the sheep.”

“Men came out from the woods and said they were taking the sheep.”

“How many?”

“Five. No, Six.”

“Why didn’t Quez leave with you?”

“They were talking when I left.”

“Did you hear anything after you left?”

“One of the men said they could fight if father wanted.”

“Anything else?”

Wex thought about this for a moment.

“No.”

Pila muttered to herself. “That fool.” She got up, taking her linen blanket with her, then went outside, laid down, curled up on the grass, and covered herself with the blanket.

 

That night, Pila woke Wex up. It was dark. She was holding something, but Wex couldn’t make out what it was. 

“You are a bad child,” she repeated over and over.

Pila beat Wex that night.

Morning came and sent a single beam of sunlight through the center of their brick dwelling. It entered through the entrance and grew until it painted the back wall a bright orange. Pila and Wex slept on one side of the light, each in their own refuge of darkness.

Wex dreamed he was standing on a cobbled clay brick street. He was holding a stick of meat, ripping off pieces with his mouth. In front of him, there was a cage, and inside, two lions paced back and forth, eyeing the crowd.

When Wex woke up, Pila was gone. It hurt to sit up, so he stood up. It hurt to stand straight, so he walked hunched over. He stepped outside and looked around, resting his gaze in the direction of the sea.

Pila sat on a cliffside overlooking the sea. She sat still, legs dangling over the rocks below. He walked over to her and stood behind her. She didn’t take any notice of his coming, though he didn’t take care to disguise it.

He waited, looking at the back of her head. Nothing happened. He looked out at the sea. It was calm.

He pushed Pila into the sea. He wasn’t sure if it was a noble thing to do. She didn’t scream. She didn’t make a sound except for the sound of her live body hitting the rocks below. 

He peeked over the side of the cliff. He didn’t think she was alive anymore. He wasn’t sure she was alive before.

 

Wex gathered the remaining sheep into the dwelling. Night came, and he slept .


© Copyright 2017 killerzoodles. All rights reserved.

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