Pillar on the Isle

by Richard Bell
Sunlight danced on the unbroken surface of the lake, falling through the forest canopy at its banks in dappled flecks of gold. Here sat a naked brown-skinned man of middle-age, legs crossed, calloused hands resting lightly in his lap.  

To the birds and beasts who cast him wary eyes on passing, he appeared no more than a lone hunter or woodsman of the tribes, resting after a day’s prowl through the underbrush. Calm and collected, peaceful, content.

Totem had ventured to that spot beside the Sacred Lake just three times in his life, moments when, as chief of the Ocelot tribe, he required absolute solitude to better marshal his thoughts. But never before had Totem been faced with a problem so dire as he now found himself contemplating.

The decision had to be made by sundown: merge with the Panther clan, becoming one with their people and culture, or face the wrath of their painted warriors. Even now they were camped just outside his home village, awaiting the order which would see them either withdraw quietly, or descend howling on his people.
At a glance it seemed a simple enough choice to make. But it was not unlike the fable of the serpent with snapping heads at either end of its body: whichever he grasped, cold fangs would fastened on his wrist.

And the Panthers were too powerful for Totem to risk an open battle. While he did not doubt the courage his braves would display in combat, he knew they could not hope for victory. Aside from boasting numbers far greater, the Panthers wielded weapons infinitely superior to the wicker shields and spears of flint borne by the Ocelots. He pictured his enemies dancing into battle, swinging swords and hatchets that glimmered like sun-baked sand.

Of course, if Totem accepted the Panther’s proposal, the Ocelots would reap countless benefits advanced herb-lore and medicine, better tools, woodcraft and stone masonry, amongst other things. And all he had to do was agree, to bow his head before their High Chief.

Merging with the Panthers would mean acquiring their strange barbaric customs. Unlike his Ocelots and their quiet worship of the wise and ancient Vaboa, the Panthers paid sacrificial homage to Bhapfulu, the Young God with the slaughter of every eighth newborn babe upon His cracked stone altar. 

Nine Ocelot women were presently with child. Totem shuddered as he pictured any one of them screaming, their babe torn from their arms by shamans of the Young God. Naturally, the father-husband would try to fend them off, only to be hacked to pieces for disrupting the holy rites. But the death of one angry man and his child was nothing compared to the carnage that might be, if Totem declined the merging.

His outward calm cracked then and he wept, burying his face in his hands. What could he do? As chief, Totem was a dead man either way. The Panthers would seek to replace him on his governing seat with a lesser chief of their own. It seemed the bravest option to surrender, to submit to their will. For how could Totem risk the lives of the entire tribe in place of so few?

Having made his decision, Totem took a series of deep, cleansing breaths, and once more closed his eyes. By the warmth on his rounded cheeks, he marked the sun’s position in the sky. Some hours remained before nightfall.

Totem leaned back on his elbows, placing his torso out of the shade and allowing the sun to bathe his face and chest. A little more relaxed now, he listened to the jungle’s orchestra; the warbling of the forest birds, the macaws and toucans, and the parakeets, the chirruping of the crickets, the beetles and the flies and frogs.

And then his hunter’s ears picked up something else, something which he had never heard before. It merged subtly with the eternal chorus, and yet it was so different as to rise above all other sounds.

Totem sat up, straining his ears, and his gaze was drawn towards the small isle at the centre of the lake. What he heard was a curious, piping melody, more a song of human make than the chatter of an animal.

That he failed to picture the song’s maker was enough for him to cast aside tradition and slip soundlessly into the lake. If anyone in the village discovered he had swam in the virgin waters, so named because they had never been violated by man, then there might be trouble. Or not. His Ocelots had more pressing matters to concern themselves with.

It was a tradition first brought about by his grandfather, though Totem had never understood the point of it.

The water was warm. It lapped his neck and chin as he half swam, half waded, his feet scuffing occasionally on the soft mud below. Then the lake bed began to dip, the water deepening. Totem pushed off with the tips of his toes. With great sweeps of his arms he dragged his bulk towards the isle. 

That mysterious, unnameable bleating could still be heard, but the foliage from where it sounded was dense and impenetrable. The muddy bed rose gently beneath his feet. The water grew shallow. On the isle, Totem strode from the water and approached the bushes. 

The noise was clearer now. He pushed aside the leafy screen and stepped through, into a space fringed thick on all sides by shrubs and roofed by the branches of a small tree. It was a place pleasantly cool and dim, but all these things Totem hardly noticed.

He had eyes only for the curious structure that loomed before him. It was a kind of block-like pillar, as tall as a man, speaking perfection of craftsmanship at every angle, erect like a stone brick stood up on its end. 

On the section level with his chest and head it was all lights; twinkling, glimmering lights forming nameless symbols in every colour he could name, and even more he could not.

Everywhere else it was unmoving, cold under his cautious fingers, hard like rock and yet not like rock at all. Grasses had sprouted around the base. Moss showed in the cracks and crevices. Vines had slunk over time to cover most of the thing’s black surface, all except for the part which flashed and changed, and a long, level panel below studded with red projections.

These Totem pressed and tugged at random, until the pillar whistled anew and he leapt back with a grunt, flint dagger in hand. He continued to stare intently at the lights, watching the changes taking place in the images they formed.

The singing settled. Totem now found himself looking at a flat scene of greys and blacks, in which stood a tiny figure no longer than his forefinger. 

It was a man, though his skin was fair, his hair yellow. 

Totem shuddered, wondering what manner of devilry had trapped him inside. To his surprise, when he pulled a certain stick the figure would run, duck or jump in the direction he dictated. And when he pressed the knobs, the little man would kick or strike out with his fist, each time with a gusty yell.

Standing there, bashing away at the panel beneath the pictures, Totem soon forgot his fears. He spent a while familiarising himself with the various movements, and then, calling on his courage, he sent the figure running towards the far end of the scene.

The view followed him. Before long he was faced with other men, similarly garbed, all kicking, howling and leaping, ducking and flying through the air towards him. But Totem now commanded a basic mastery of the controls, and he fought back with equal vigour and tenacity. His knees flew into bellies and his feet cracked against heads. Fists broke upon his face, his own snaking out in retaliation a second later. If he was killed it did not matter. He was immortal, appearing in a flash where he had been moments before. He ducked under hurled knives and sprang above sword strokes, prancing and bounding about, triumphing over his enemies like a god. 

It was exhilaration without fatigue.
Exultation without pain.
A gift from Vaboa; a heaven on earth, away from time itself.

Now Totem knew why his grandfather named the lake as virgin and sacred, why he had ventured here so often. He wanted no others to know of the pillar. It was his one retreat from the pressures of chieftainship.

With that thought dawned another, so sudden and terrible a recollection that Totem’s hands fell trembling from the control panel. He staggered back. How long had he been there? The Panthers wanted his decision by sundown!

Totem threw himself from the isle and into the lake, crashing noisily through the water, all the while trying to glimpse the sun’s position. 

Mounting the opposite bank, Totem stood dripping wet, chest heaving. He saw with a cry of despair the crimson disk sinking behind the treetops, bathing the canopy in blood.

His mind flashed with images of slaughter and butchery, of the massacre about to sweep through his home village. There was no way for him to reach the Panthers in time, to tell them he would accept their offer and merge tribes.

The light was fading fast. Totem shut his eyes tight and fell to his knees, pulling at his hair, blubbering like a child. He wailed to the scarlet clouds, but all around him the forest was silent, as if the birds and the beasts understood his anguish. 

And again Totem made out the soft song of the pillar. 

 It was calling him.

© 2010 Richard Bell.  All rights reserved.

Richard Bell lives and writes (for now) in Cheshire. His stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in such magazines/journals as Neonbeam, Hackwriters, Skive, Fickle Muses, Midwest Literary Magazine, and The Absent Willow Review.
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