The Path Walkers
Long, long ago, deep in the Burmese jungle—on the long eastern shore of what was to be called Lake Indawgyi but which was then named for Ei-vu, the spirit of long, sweet water—there lived two tribes:
The Mera, and the Lasi.
Their lands, as large as any among the scattered jungle peoples of their time, with the long lake as their western borders, also bordered each other, Lasi’s to Mera’s north and Mera’s to Lasi’s south.
The Lasi and the Mera, for as far back as legend could reach, had always been mortal enemies, and so they remained.
When Ea-pe created Thanai, the first man, this first man founded the Mera tribe. When Ea-pe created E-u, the first woman, she joined Thanai as his Mera bride and wife. This is what all Mera children were taught by their Yaj-Hate and his helpers.
The Lasi children, on the other hand, were taught that all Lasi stem from Thanai and E-u who were the very first Lasis and who would ever be the father and mother of their tribe. This was so because Ea-pe himself was Lasi. So preached the Lasi Yaj-Hate and his helpers.
The Mera children were also taught, over and over, that anyone who said that Thanai and E-u were not of the Mari tribe, or that they were not the founders of the Mari tribe—always referring to the Lasi, though not saying so openly—were evil and in the grim power of Bilu, the hungry ghost who cast no shadow and who ate children. It was a long-established and well-known fact among the Mera that all Lasi were under Bilu’s spell, and that many Lasi children were eaten by Bilu each year.
Yes, so the Mera children were taught, and they were taught to be grateful that they were born Mera children and not Lasi children, or they might be dead and eaten by now.
Were the Lasi to lay down their weapons and acknowledge the Mera as their betters, and were they to pay tribute to Mera’s excellence and superiority in all endeavors, then, perhaps, Bilu would stop eating Lasi children, but not before then.
This is what the Mera children were taught.
The Lasi children, however, all knew that all Meras were really nothing but Ngoyamas disguised as humans, cannibal demons that wished for nothing more than a sumptuous meal of Lasi child. And if they did not behave, the Meras would sneak into their village at night and carry them away for dinner.
And so, back and forth, generation after generation, went the tribal teaching of their children.
These children, whether Mera or Lasi, unless bitten and killed by vipers or other poisonous creatures, eventually grew up, all with both fear and hatred in their hearts, along with an unease at living so close to such evil enemies.
And all male children, once grown—unless selected as Yaj-Hate helper, a great honor—took up weapons and protected their borders and maimed and killed their enemy as needed, and all female children grew up to have children of their own to whom they passed on these eternal lessons about the Lasi or the Mera.
There was another tale, one whispered among those whose will to fight had begun to fade, a tale frowned upon by the Yaj-Hates of both tribes, a tale that told that when Ea-pe created the world and all beings in it, Thanai and E-u were neither Lasi nor Mera, but of another tribe so ancient that no one can remember its name. But these were just ramblings of the too-old-to-fight. Or so said the both the Lasi and the Mera Yaj-Hates. Don’t listen to these fools. They know nothing. And they will soon walk the path, anyway.
Over the years, both the Lasi and the Mera had gathered many a fine treasure and many a sacred thing that the Yaj-Hates and their acolytes preserved and protected, and among these things holy, none was holier, nor more secret, than the path.
The Lasi had a path.
The Mera had a path.
Yes, there was the well-hidden and only-whispered-about Lasi path, and there was the equally well-concealed and only-whispered-about Mera path.
These two paths shared a purpose: to aid the feet of the old and feeble as they set out on their final walk. Only the Yaj-Hate and his helpers knew the head and course of their respective paths, and none other than they (and those headed for death, of course) ever walked the path—the Yaj-Hate, to now and then sprinkle holiness on it, and his helpers to keep it clear of rocks and twigs and to trim the undergrowth.
None other must ever know the location of the path’s head, much less walk it. Should you stumble upon it, even though the members of both tribes were strictly forbidden by ancient law to enter the jungles to the east of their lands, and walk even a small portion of it, the punishment for so violating sacred tribal law and the sanctity of the path was crushed feet. And then, once the breaker of this law grew too feeble to contribute to the tribe he or she would have to crawl the path.
These paths led to life’s end.
Once a Lasi or Mera man or woman grew too feeble to contribute to the well-being of the tribe, once he or she had become a burden to others, the honorable and expected and eventually compulsory thing for them to do was to walk the path—guided by the Yaj-Hate if you were important enough or by one of his helpers if you were not—which after much weaving through the jungle led to and wove up the side of Myiammo Taung, the holy mountain, to eventually end at a sheer rock face as high as a two hundred warriors standing one on top of each other, down which the path walkers, once arrived, and after a brief or not so brief—depending on importance—sacred farewell ceremony, threw themselves to their deaths.
At times the already dead walked the path, though walked would not be the right word for they were carried. Should a child die of sickness, or should a warrior be slain in a fight, it was up to the Yaj-Hate’s helpers to carry the dead along the path all the way up the mountain, where, after the farewell ceremony, they would toss the little, or large, corpse over the edge and onto the pile far, far below.
More rarely, the alive was carried along the path and cast across to their death from atop Myiammo Taung. These were the very young who had been born perhaps missing one finger, or with one finger too many, or with a head too large or too small, or in some other way lame or deformed since such children, according to the Yaj-Hate and tribal custom, would always grow to be a burden to the tribe, a burden better tossed down the mountain sooner rather than later. Again, it fell upon the Yaj-Hate helpers to carry these newly born distortions up the path and to then cast him or her over the ledge and into death.
No parent or relative or friend could ever follow as they parted, they had to say their goodbyes at the edge of the village, whether to their old parent on his or her own feet, or to their dead or deformed child in the arms of the helpers.
All tears had to be cried within the village boundaries.
Quite a little mountain of bewildered Lasi and Mera skeletons had, over the centuries, gathered at the bottom of the two hundred warrior cliff.
Yes, the truth was that both tribes had a similarly guarded and protected sacred path climbing the same mountain to end at the same cliff. This was well-known by the Yaj-Hates on both sides. But as for the members of the tribes—the men, women and children—each knew their path to be the only one, and none knew of the others’ path. Except, of course, for the Yaj-Hates and their helpers, who knew everything (the Yaj-Hates), or most things (the helpers).
Even so, children are rarely too serious about anything, no matter how sacred, and while afraid of the path, since they all knew that those who walked it never came back, they would often accuse each other of being so dumb that they would have to walk the path, or inform each other that if they didn’t do what they were told, their parents would make them walk the path. Mostly jokingly, but sometimes not.
Also, “I should have you walk the path” was a common curse among both the Lasis and Meras. Never said within earshot of the Yaj-Hate, though.
The border between the two tribes was patrolled day and night by their respective warriors, Lasi vigilance to the north of it, Mera alertness to the south. No hunter or warrior, nor member or child, would ever cross the border on purpose (unless war was intended or in progress), but often enough, either by disorientation or some other accident, a Mera would stray into Lasi territory, or the other way around. Were this to be seen by the border guards, death always followed.
Now and then—at least once a generation, usually more often—war broke out between them, and at the end of it the border moved a few paces to the north or a few paces to the south, depending on who had won this time. Following such wars, the Yaj-Hates’ helpers spent weeks, if not months, carrying dead warriors up the path, and that is the main reason why helpers were always chosen from among strong boys and young men.
Such was the world of the Lasi and the Mera. And into this world, one day long ago, were born a Lasi girl who was named Myine, and a Mera boy who was named Arun.
Myine, as she grew up, turned out to be a handful for her parents, who of course loved her but whose patience was often worn very thin—if not out altogether—by her never ceasing questions, for she was more curious than anyone could ever remember a girl (or a boy, for that matter) to have been. She was often referred to as Myine the Curious among the Lasi.
Arun, on the other hand, although no less curious, didn’t say much. He did not ask questions. He preferred to see thing for himself. If he wondered about a plant or an insect or a rock or a tree or a fish, rather than ask about it, he would slip into the jungle or down to the lake to find what he was looking for and then either examine it then and there or bring it home for further study.
One day he brought home a beautiful, but very poisonous snake. This filled his father’s cup who then told him that he could no longer bring things home from the jungle, and why wasn’t he outside playing with the other children, anyway?
But telling Arun that he could not investigate the world around him was like telling Myine to stop asking questions. Quite the hopeless task.
And so Myine continued to ask questions and Arun continued to slip into the jungle to see things for himself.
As her young years passed Myine turned into a beautiful girl, worth much in her father’s opinion. And she was her mother’s pride. If only she wouldn’t ask so many questions. Her mother secretly pitied the man who would end up her husband, but nonetheless was already quietly counting the treasure that Myine would bring once she reached betrothal age, not so far off now.
As Arun reached young manhood he grew strong and agile, shaped by countless jungle days, pursuing, tracking, climbing, diving, investigating. And, he too, grew beautiful. He was the dream and desire of many a young Mera girl, and the hope of many of their mothers.
One morning Myine asked Hia, her mother, and not for the first time, “If they don’t have a path, what do the Mera do with their old men and women? Or perhaps they do have a path?”
“Of course not,” her mother answered. “I’ve told you before. Even if every Mera man, woman and child pooled their brains, they would not end up with enough of it to find a path. From what I’ve heard, their old men and women lie about in their huts, eating the food meant for the children and cursing everyone in the process.”
Then Hia added, “And don’t forget, Myine, our path was made by Ea-pe. Then hidden by Ea-pe so that we would not stumble upon it before our time. We are his children, Myine. The Mera have no true god, only rocks and sticks they scratch themselves with and then pray to. They have no god, only idols.”
Myine shook her head at such stupidity. But after some thought she said, as if to verify her suspicion, “Grandmother Kyine will soon walk the path.”
This brought her mother to stillness, for it was true. But it came as a surprise to her mother that Myine knew, or suspected. A pair of tears formed in Hia’s eyes. “Yes,” she said, without turning. “She will soon walk the path.”
Then Myine said, “Perhaps the Mera are not so stupid after all. I would not mind Grandmother not walking the path. She could stay with us. I would share my food with her.”
Her mother turned to her then, alarmed. “Don’t say that, Myine. Never say that. And never, ever so that the Yaj-Hate or his helpers hear you.”
“The way of the path must never, ever be questioned. Not even in jest. It is sacred law. Ea-pe gave us both path and law.”
Myine nodded. “Sorry,” she said.
“The Yaj-Hate and his helpers have good ears,” said Hia. “You must guard your tongue, or they will cut it out.”
Arun was concerned about Khin, his mother’s father. Although he was not all that old, he had never been of very good health, nor had he ever been as strong or as agile as other men his age. And now there were rumblings in the village about Khin and walks and paths, especially among those who had to work a little extra because Khin—while still eating his full share—could no longer do his full share of work.
One morning, Arun visited Khin, still recuperating in his hut from an infected finger, much better now, though. Tomorrow he would return to work, yes, that was the plan, though Khin’s plans had a habit of falling short or changing, much the victim of prevailing moods and winds.
Arun sat down and began to prepare some tea for Khin. Khin eased himself up onto his elbow and watched his grandson’s doings.
“You’re not out there tipping over rocks today? Or diving for crabs?” He said after a while.
Arun didn’t answer, but instead reached for two small cups, which he placed on the mat by Khin’s bed.
“Nothing to investigate today?” said Khin.
Arun looked up at Khin. “They say you’re soon to walk the path,” he said. “Is that true?”
Khin, never the bravest of men, didn’t care much for the topic. “There’s always a lot of talk,” he said.
“Not about you walking the path,” said Arun.
Khin leaned back into his pillow and studied the uneven ceiling of his hut for a spell. Then he said, “We all have to, one day.”
“Not at your age,” said Arun, now pouring the tea then holding one cup out for Khin to take.
“Thank you,” said Khin, easing himself up again, now into sitting. He blew on the surface of the green liquid. “Did you bring this tea?” he asked.
“Mom sent it,” said Arun.
“Thank her for me,” said Khin.
Arun said nothing. He sipped his own tea. “Are they really going to make you walk the path?” he said at length.
After another silence (though you could hear the birds outside, the always noisy birds, and some talking and shouting far away), Arun was surprised to hear what sounded like crying. He looked up to confirm, and he was not mistaken: his grandfather’s cheeks were shiny with tears, and now a sniffling noise to clear his nose.
“Grandpa,” said Arun, alarmed.
“It’s all right, Arun. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” said Khin and wiped his eyes with his right forearm.
“They are?” said Arun.
“Next full moon,” said Khin.
“Why?” said Arun. “You can still work.”
At that Khin removed his blanket to reveal a fresh infection in his left foot. Ugly and deep. The foot had begun to discolor. “I cannot walk, Arun. And my other foot has started to hurt as well.”
Arun could only shake his head slowly back, forth, back, forth, trying to absorb what he saw and what his grandfather was telling him.
“The healer came yesterday,” Khin said. “He shook his head just like you’re shaking yours now. Then he said there was nothing he could do, short of cutting them off.”
“Have you been bitten?” said Arun.
“Perhaps,” said Khin. “That’s what the healer asked also. But I don’t know. I don’t remember being bitten. And you would think I should remember such a thing.”
“This doesn’t just happen,” said Arun, nodding in the direction of Khin’s feet.
His grandfather agreed, there must be a cause.
“Ea-pe? You’ve been praying?” said Arun.
“Every day all the time, or every day recently?”
“Every day recently.”
“You’ve fallen out of favor, perhaps.”
“That’s what the Yaj-Hate said,” said Khin. “Long ago, he said.”
“What can we do?” said Arun. “Does mother know?”
“I don’t’ know,” said Khin. “And, no, she does not know.”
“And father, does he know?”
“No,” said Khin. “He doesn’t not know either.”
Arun looked at his grandfather’s feet again. “You may have to crawl.”
“I have thought about that.”
Arun regarded the small cup in his hands, and what little tea remained in it, for some time. Then he finished that as well and said, “I will help you.”
“What are you saying?
“If you must walk the path, you should walk the path. You should not be forced to crawl.”
“I forbid it,” said his grandfather.
“I will take care not to be seen,” said Arun. Then, a little proudly, “I know the path’s head.”
“I was afraid you would discover it sooner or later,” said Khin.
“I was not looking for it,” said Arun. “I was in the forest when the helpers brought little Myi. Remember? Who was born with only half a left foot.”
“I heard her cry from afar. She was not happy. I purposely walked in another direction, but they still came my way. I stepped off the path and into the brush. Here they came. They carried her in a green sheet, but you could see her face. So small, so alarmed at what was going on. Not happy about walking the path.”
“What were you doing in that part of the jungle?”
“Always looking,” said Khin.
“Did they see you?”
“Of course not.”
“But you know where the path begins?”
“I followed them for a little while. And then, yes, they came to it and parted the bushes that concealed it. Yes, I saw the head of the path. I know where it is.”
“That is a dangerous knowledge, Arun. You must tell no one.”
“And even so, Arun. I forbid it. You must not help me. You must not walk it with me. They would crush your feet if they found out.”
“I know,” said Arun. “But they will not find out.”
Khin shook his head in despair. “Promise me that you will obey. Promise.”
Arun hesitated, then said, “I cannot promise, grandfather. You must not crawl.”
“If I promise not to crawl. If I promise to use a cane or a crutch, will you promise not to help me? Will you promise to stay away?”
When Arun didn’t answer, Khin said. “The helpers will lead me to the path head, and at least one of them will follow me. They will see you, Arun. They will crush your feet.”
To put Khin’s mind at ease, Arun said, and meant it, “I promise.”
Recently, it had begun to dawn on Myine that perhaps the biggest crime her people could commit was to question the wisdom of the Yaj-Hate, which, as she had been taught, was the personified wisdom of tradition, the wisdom of history, the wisdom of Ea-pe.
The Yaj-Hate was sacred, and he was the law. So were his helpers.
But she had seen the fear in Hia’s eyes when she suggested that she would share her meals with her grandmother, if only she did not have to walk the path. Even thinking such thoughts, she realized, was breaking some law or other. Which precise law she was not sure, but she knew to would know: The Yaj-Hate.
She wished her father were still alive. She would have asked him. He would know. He had not been afraid. And being not afraid he had both killed and been killed by the tiger. He had been strong. It took four helpers to carry him out of the village for the path. They were not looking forward to this walk, she could tell, and she hated them for it.
Myine rarely cried, but seeing her father disappear among the trees, she did. The vastness of the empty cavern of her sundered heart was more than she could bear. Her mother cried too, but more for her own bad fortune than for the loss of her husband, that’s what Myine thought, even though she was only a child.
And now she wished more than anything that he was still alive, she would ask him about the path. She would question the path. She would question the wisdom of it. He would have answered, not cowered at the question. But without him there was no one to ask. She could not well ask the Yaj-Hate, she knew that. Nor his helpers. Nor her friends.
And there being no one at all to ask, this left her no choice. She knew what she had to do.
And so it was that when Yon, the infant girl, was bitten and soon died and then carried by a single helper out of the village for the path, Myine, already hiding in the jungle, followed.
She had hidden some ways off the village path the helpers and walkers would take leaving the village, and there, well-concealed, she had waited. Waiting she could hear the wail of Yon’s mother, crying her good-byes. They were on their way then. She crouched even closer to the ground, even farther behind the thicket, careful to step on earth only and not earth plus snake or earth plus twig.
While the distraught wail still reached her, and as if chasing him, here he came, the tall helper and his small bundle of dead girl. He took long steps this Thant, for that was his name. Tall and proud, this Thant, and in a hurry to get where he was going. He passed Myine’s thicket intent on his mission. He noticed nothing.
Once he was perhaps ten paces down the village path, Myine slipped out from behind the bush, and as silently and as quickly as she could set out after them. Thant and the little walker.
Thant walked fast. Eager, it seemed to be done with this. Almost too fast for Myine to follow, but not too fast. Too fast to follow quietly, though, she feared, for at times she had to run to keep up.
And then she lost him.
One moment he was twenty paces down the path, then he rounded a bend. Myine hurried to the bend not to lose him, but when she got there he and the little walker were gone. She stopped, turned back several paces. Stopped again and listened, trying her hardest to sift through the constant noises of the jungle for the sound of Thant’s feet. Birds screaming, monkeys chattering, and, yes, a snake slithering, a big one too, but she could not worry about that now, besides the snake was some ways off to her left. Another crashing, a deer perhaps. A wild pig? But there, there, to her right, feet, yes, feet. Thant’s long legs making his way through the brush. She looked about for a smaller path leading into the brush, but saw none. But now that she had recognized his feet, she could pin her ears to them, making them stand out against the remainder of loud jungle. And so, following his feet, she made her way through the brush as quickly and as quietly as she could. There it was, still, the sound of Thant’s feet. And there it was, and there it was, and there it was not.
Had he stopped? Had he heard her and stopped to listen? She stopped, too. Only jungle now. After many quick breaths she ventured forward again, one quiet step after another, and another, and another, and there: there was the reason the sound of Thant’s feet had ceased. There, beyond two small, intertwined trees, was the head of the path. Coming up to it and crouching for a better look, she saw that the path was smooth, almost as if swept. Brown against the green of the surrounding undergrowth. A pace or so wide, their holy path.
Still, even now, even after having already broken sacred law by following the helper, she hesitated to place her feet on the path. It was, she knew very well—for she had been told often enough—a crushing offence. Crushed feet. The deepest shame. To then crawl the path when old, or perhaps not so old. She hesitated some more, then hesitated no more. She set one foot on the path, then another, then began walking as fast, though as quietly, as she could. Thant would have made good way during her delay, she must hurry to catch up with him.
Luckily she made as little noise as Thant did on this smooth ground, narrower in places, almost covered by overhanging grass in others, but always smooth, always firm, always swept. She, too, made good way. Still, always with an eye ahead. She must not come too close, or, Ea-pe forbid, run into him. A long stretch of path ahead, yes, almost concealed by the tall grasses, but there just by that crevice in the rock to his right, again she saw the helper and his small cargo. Intent only on forward motion, no thoughts of behind him.
Weaving like a long brown snake across the forest floor, she could tell that the path always curved toward Myiammo Taung, and now she could also detect a soft incline of the swept ground she walked. To the mountain then, she thought. She nodded to herself as she walked, yes, that would be where the path would lead. The holy mountain.
Many careful paces later she spotted Thant again, shifting his little burden from one arm to another while suddenly looking back. Myine fell to the ground as softly as she could, hoping, hoping. She lay still for many breaths. When she finally rose and looked there was no Thant to see. He had not spotted her then. She could finally swallow.
Quickly then, down the path to the spot where Thant had turned and looked behind him, which was where the path veered more to the right, and was now very clear about its intent: upward.
So steeply here and there that the path was more like stairs than path. Weaving now back and forth up the broad and jungle-covered side of Myiammo Taung the path took her higher and higher. At times she had to stop to catch her breath. This was climbing more than walking. How, she asked herself, how had they managed to carry her father up these steps. They had been four, though, she reminded herself, with a stretcher. Carried by two—the path was too narrow for all four to carry—she imagined, while the other two rested. Yes, that is how she would have done it. The only sense to it.
Again, she spotted Thant up ahead, steadily climbing with his long, strong legs. Intent on his progress. Shifting his burden again from one arm to the other.
The jungle grew lighter as they rose up the mountain, the sun now touching ground here and there, and very hot when it did. She had not thought of water, as a fool, she told herself. For now, she was thirsty, and as if to make her thirstier still she now saw how Thant had again stopped to rest, and was now drinking deeply from his water pouch, his little burden momentarily resting on the ground.
There was nothing to do about that, she decided. Dumb to be sure, but nothing to do about it now. She hid behind a mossy trunk, alive with ants, until Thant had had his fill and rest and now set off again. Long strides on long legs.
The jungle grew thinner still, the sun warmer, her thirst stronger. The path, amazingly well kept—almost like a carpet here she thought—climbing higher and higher.
As the day turned overcast and with the low clouds very humid and warm, the rising path brought her further and further up the mountain.
And now, judging by she was not sure what signs precisely, she felt they were nearing the top. To be truthful, for being so holy, Myiammo Taung was not very tall. Not snow-covered or anything like the mountains farther to the north. Though not covered by the denser jungle, trees still climbed all the way up, she saw this and thanked the fates that this was so, or she would surely be spotted by Thant. Even so, the forest grew less and less dense the higher they rose, and she had to fall farther and farther back.
Then Thant stopped. Tall and silhouetted against the vast, tree-less sky behind him. Had he arrived? It seemed so, for he put Yon down on the ground, and then kneeled beside the little corpse. Myine stepped off the path and made a wide, silent half-circle to her right to move closer to Thant and his doings.
She found a usable thicket not a stone’s throw from the helper and the little girl. While Myine made her approach, Thant had brought out several things from his shoulder pouch, amulets, strung beads, a small cross made from bone (she gathered). Strips of colored cloth. All arranged now around Yon, just so. Thant rose and inspected his handiwork. Then he brought his hands together, and prayed. Silently at first, then aloud:
To thee we bestow this child
To thee she will fly
To thee she will come for comfort
By thee she will settle
A small noise, as of a thin twig breaking underfoot, to her right caught Thant’s ear as well as hers and he stopped his prayer and turned. Looking not in Myine’s direction but toward the trees beyond her. All was still. The wind, as if taking the blame, sighed through the higher branches and a fruit toppled and hit the ground not far from her: see, I told you so.
Thant, satisfied as to the cause of the noise, returned to his prayer:
Of blood too young to discolor
A life too young to beget
Of hearts that call her to your side
Of these I sing that you may hear
To thee I offer this life
As you saw fit to reclaim
Open then your hands to receive
Her sad and earthly remains
With that Thant slowly gathered his charms and returned them to his shoulder pouch. Then he walked over to the edge of the cliff and looked down, as if searching for something. Apparently finding what he was looking for, he returned to Yon and picked her up and with her in his arms, again walked over to the edge.
Here he began rocking her back and forth, from behind him to in front of him, back and forth and then he rocked her farther back than before, almost shoulder-high, and then, with a heave and an unleashing of tension, he shot her forward and let her go, and like a little arrow she shot up and out over the cliff, suspended, it seemed, for a while high in the gray air, then she began falling and then she was gone.
Myine was not sure what she had expected, but this was not it. A little shocked, she nonetheless found herself listening for the sound of Yon’s body landing, for surely it must land. It would not be caught by Ea-pe midflight, would it? But there was no sound. Maybe so, then. Maybe indeed.
But no, there was the faint, though unmistakable crash of the little body finding the ground below. Thant stood almost leaning over the edge, looking down, inspecting things. Satisfied, he turned and with his long, powerful strides set out back down the path.
Myine crouched and held her breath, waiting for Thant to move out of sight. She could see the beginning of his descent, the tall body slowly sliced into less and less tall from below until only his head remained, and then, it too, quite abruptly, was gone. She waited another few long breaths before she rose.
Slowly, she approached the edge. The view from here was spectacular. She could see much of the world. Maybe all of it.
She reached the ceremonial ground and the edge. Leaning over she almost caught vertigo, so steep and so sharp was the drop. The height of many, many men, maybe her whole village, maybe more. No wonder it took so long for Yon to reach the ground below.
The ground below: not so much ground as small white and gray and bony mountain. As it dawned on her, Myine swallowed: the path walkers. A small mountain of path walkers in the shadow of the larger one. Gathering there, far below, for she could not imagine how long. Since time began?
But, she realized, this would mean that those who were not, like Yon, carried and tossed over the edge by a helper. Yes, she thought, that would mean that they must have leaped of their own accord.
She tried to imagine.
Old and tired, perhaps sick. And the path was not easy to walk. Hard at times. It could have taken days.
To have made it all the way here. To have left the village, with its rich sustenance of family and friends behind. Not only that, with a full life lived left behind. To have left all that and climbed all the way here, to then leap.
To then leap.
She imagined leaping, but could not. She loved life too much. And would she love life less a lifetime from now? She did not think so. So would she leap? But they must have leaped? Or had they been pushed? Did the helper escort them just to make sure they made it over the edge and down upon the bone mountain below? She thought that must be the case.
But some, surely, leaped on their own. Again, she tried to imagine. Who had been the first to leap? And why? Was it honor? Was it Ea-pe’s will? But what if honor did not matter, or if you disagreed with Ea-pe?
Yes, she told herself, the Yaj-Hate or his helpers would make sure. Yes, she was sure of this. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but this she knew.
She looked down again. The mound of skeletons, the bone mountain, was large. It was also the home of carrion birds, she saw now. Several had already settled on or near Yon, bickering, picking at her skin and flesh and eyes. Yes, her eyes. Other birds, larger, drawn by the feast, circled far below and settled. The smaller birds, knowing their turn at the table was over, grabbed one last quick bite then moved over to let the buzzards and vultures settle things between them.
She could watch this no longer. Stepping back from the edge she realized that she was crying. She blinked two tears away. Remembered Yon running around naked laughing. Always tripping over things, that was Yon.
And now this. This was not right.
Then, from somewhere behind her, a soft dislodging. A stone shifted. Something bigger froze. Something trying not to be heard.