The Totems of Abydos
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by John Norman
Description: In a far future, two anthropologists, gross, powerful, dissolute Emilio Rodriguez, and aspiring, young, naive Allan Brenner, who, unbeknownst to himself, carries ancient genes, of a sort no longer welcome on Home World, have been assigned to conduct a study on Abydos, a deeply forested, wilderness planet of little note, whose only evidence of civilization is a single enclave, small, rough, dingy Company Station, a fueling station occasionally utilized by star freighters. Within the forest, some days from Company Station, are the Pons, a group of small, simian-seeming organisms which seems near the crossroads between animal and rational creature, between nature and culture. They would seem to constitute an ideal object of study with respect to the origins of, and foundations of, civilization. How came it about, so to speak, that something once emerged from the lair, or cave, that was different, radically so? What lies at the beginning? The results of the study have already been politically prescribed on Home World, that the Pons are to shed light on humanity, that it is, in its original and unspoiled nature, polite, sweet, kind, deferent, diffident, social, noncompetitive, and innocent. Both Rodriguez and Brenner have a trait in common, however, which may explain why they have been sent, exiled in a sense, to such an out-of-the-way locale. Both seek the truth. They enter the forest.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: February 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [744 KB]
Reading time: 487-682 min.
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It was near sunset when Horemheb left the village. He had with him his staff, a small sack of meal, and the parchment, from the raised impressions of which, beneath his fingers, might be traced the sayings. The brethren took look little note of him as this journey was not unprecedented with Horemheb, even at this fearful time of day.
In a short time, Horemheb had found the string stretched amongst the trees, it tied from tree to tree, at a height convenient to his hand, it marking the trail he would follow. He touched the string and, sometimes, when there would be a stirring in the brush near him, the sound of a body moving in the darkness through the undergrowth, the sound of a branch moving overhead, perhaps tossed by the wind, perhaps depressed by the tread of a small foot, he would stop and clutch the string. It was the string, it seemed, that protected him from the night of the world, a tiny string tied between trees in the darkness, but in Horemheb there was a darkness within a darkness, and within the interior darkness he had groped for a string, but had never found it.
Horemheb continued his journey, not leaving hold of the string.
He did not fear that he would be followed, nor did it much matter to him if he might be. Rather we may suppose he would have pitied any who might have been tempted to follow him, and, indeed, had he been younger, he might have remonstrated with them, not for his sake, for he was lonely, but for theirs, to return to the safety of their walls, to the hearths of the village. When he was younger he had been tempted to call others after him, of course, not only for the comfort which they might afford, or, more selfishly, for the dangers they might share, but in the hope that they, if not he, might discover what lay at the end of the string, that they might come with him to the place where the sting ended, where the rocks were, and the platform, and that they might tell him what they had seen.
It was no secret to the brethren, of course, as it seemed to be to Horemheb, what lay at the end of the string. Many was the time in the bright daylight hours, when all is warm and cheerful, that they had followed out its length, and come to the place where the platform was, a place not much different from other places, and seen how empty it was, and how meaningless, with only the wind there, and stirring leaves, and small, soft sounds from amongst the rocks.
To be sure, the brethren would never follow Horemheb from the village at night. In the darkness were many shapes, and not all benign, and, often enough, of a moist, dewy morning, had the evidence been clear that even near the string had prowled stealthy, hungry ones, the sort which were reluctant to traverse the cleared area outside the fence.
There had been a stirring near him, a shifting, like a sudden swirl or eddy in dry water, and then a rippling of branches. It was not likely to have been a stealthy one. Of such a one Horemheb, nor even the younger and more acute of perception, would have been likely to detect the approach, until its closure, which would have taken but the fraction of an instant, but scarcely, it was said, half the beat of a heart. It was said one would not even have time to be afraid. That was supposed to be comforting, one supposed. But that thought frightened Horemheb, not having time enough to be afraid. He would not have liked that. It was better to have had time enough to be afraid, for that, too, was, like the string, something to understand, and grasp. But Horemheb took comfort in the thought that even within the grasp of a stealthy one, helpless within its embrace, one would surely have an instant, or part of an instant, of understanding, if only so fleeting an understanding, of what had occurred. That was important. Horemheb would want to understand. Surely that would be most terrible, not to know, not to understand, what had occurred. How terrible to perish like a flower or a blade of grass, to have been so beautiful, and so alive, and not to have known it, and then to perish, unaware even of the oblivions between whose margins it throve. That was what Horemheb most feared, not knowing. Surely he feared that more than death. Otherwise he would not have made the journey. Indeed, life seemed a small enough, and a reasonable enough, gift to exchange for knowing, or understanding, or truth. To be sure, you must not misunderstand me here. Horemheb was not a vainglorious man, nor even a very proud one. He did wish to understand, but not really a great deal, and only in a small, modest way, and in a way suitable to himself, to his own lights and limitations. That would have been enough. It need not be significant from your point of view, for example. He just wanted, you see, to catch a glimpse of a part of the world, so to speak. To come to grips, truly, so to speak, with a particle of rock, a pebble, a grain of sand, a drop of water, perhaps a branch, such small things, that would have been enough for him. He did not seek to penetrate the mysteries of matter, say, that there should be such, or those of stars, and time, and worlds, and space. Nothing significant, you understand. Indeed, his ambitions did not even extend, really, to the pebble or the branch, so to speak. Rather he wanted to understand the brethren, and himself, and, if it must be anticipated, the beast, that which he knew, and the others did not, lay at the end of the string. That was the quest of his life, its purpose. Indeed, that was the meaning of the journey. Too, it was not that Horemheb had really chosen to make the journey. People seldom choose to make such journeys. Rather such journeys choose them. In a sense, one might even think of him as having been condemned to the journey, or destined for it, much as a stone is condemned to be subject to the law of gravity, or destined to abide beneath its sway, much as fire, without its choice or collusion, is condemned to be beautiful and savage, and water the medium of life's nutrients and yet, at the same time, the most frightening of all substances, in whose suffocating depths it would be, for such as Horemheb, impossible. And so Horemheb left the village, and at night. He did not begrudge the others the walls, or the fence, or the cordiality and warmth of their hearths. Sometimes he envied them. But the journey had called him. He had been chosen by the journey. Perhaps that was why the stealthy ones had not claimed him, why he, of all the brethren, seemed invulnerable to their clasp. Or rather, perhaps more sensibly, it was because they knew he clung to the string, and that the string led to the platform. The stealthy ones, too, had their fears, and they were seldom found in the vicinity of the platform. They feared to go there. The string led to the platform. Perhaps that was why Horemheb had, for many times, over many tens of revolutions of his world, returned from this journey. Surely the brethren did not, as a folk, possess such invulnerability, such immunity from the stealthy ones. And indeed, sometimes the brethren, about their hearths, puzzled, and speculated, and wondered how it was that the stealthy ones did not claim him, as they had others, sometimes even in the brightness of the sun, in the heat of the day, in the summer, not only in the winters when the lantern fruits were shriveled on the frozen branches and their prints could be found in the snow, about the edges of the clearing, sometimes near the fence itself. The brethren knew about the string, but they did not understand it. Too, they knew about the platform, but they did not understand it, either. To understand the platform one must have, like Horemheb, come there at night. Then they might have understood.
Midway in his journey, near the string, Horemheb stopped and put his staff to one side. He sat down there, on the ground, prey to what might choose to have him, what he could not, in any case, have evaded, not crouching like the younger ones, ready to dart at the snapping of a twig, the crinkling of a leaf, to safety. He sat there, in the weariness and patience of age, too old for the journey and himself knowing it, yet having begun it once again, now not really with that peculiar resignation appropriate enough, one supposes, for those who carry the weight of many winters in their bones, for there was little that was resigned in the bright, ancient spirit of Horemheb, but with a carelessness of, or insensitivity to, what might terrify or threaten another, sitting there with the insouciance of those who feel they have little left to protect of life, and little left to lose, rich only in rags and dust, and questions, and dreams, content in the security of this poverty, this unenvied affluence, vulnerable to the forest, to the darkness, and what might lurk within it, and partook of some of the meal from his small sack, no more than a handful, wetting it with his own saliva and, grain by grain, swallowing it. He did not eat all the grain, however, as it was in its way a fruit of the field, and was to be placed on the platform.
As he fed, and afterwards rested, Horemheb pondered again on a not uncommon theme of his meditations, the brethren. He was not, in his simple way, an untutored man, or unlearned man. Surely in his youth, long before he had found the platform, he had been no stranger to the parchments, those whose surfaces needed no irregularities to communicate their wisdom, or its counterfeits. Too, he had six times traveled from the village, not merely to the platform whence he had often gone, but on the legs of youth, even to the place, far off, beyond the forest, beyond the darkness, where there were steel ships that sailed vertically into the skies, with smoke and fire, then seeming to fade away, like stars in the morning. He had even in that place, far, far away, encountered those who were not of the brethren, men who came and went in such ships, and tended them, and fed them, rough, stormy folk, giants of foul aspect and voice who stank and thundered when they spoke. But even they would not come back into the forests, not even following the clearly marked trails of white stones, which glowed in the darkness, retaining the light of day almost until dawn. There was little in the forests that interested them, or intrigued them. And there were the stealthy ones, of diverse genera, whom they feared, even as the brethren themselves did. Horemheb thought that of interest, that the giants should fear the stealthy ones, in spite of their loud voices, and their bragging, in spite of their lights, and their wires, and the tubes which seemed to have envesseled lightning itself. Sometimes they turned these tubes on one another and Horemheb had once seen this, that the light, with its swift blaze dispelling darkness, had left behind little but ashes and body fluid, bubbling and smoking. Horemheb had fled from the place of the giants, and had returned to the forest. The brethren need not fear the giants in the forest. In the forest the giants, too, were small, and were afraid. The brethren did not have such tubes. They had little, and by their own choice, but sharpened sticks, and weighted cords, and the scarps, the tiny gouges, small, sharp, and hooklike, which served so many purposes, even, on one's hands and knees, the cultivation of the soil. How was it then that the brethren had survived in the forest, Horemheb wondered. They had, it seemed, for generations and generations, Horemheb did not believe anyone knew how many, eked out their living in this difficult place, petitioning year in and year out the selfish, begrudging soil for an uncertain, meager harvest, and all the time there were, in the forest, and outside the fence, the stealthy, hungry ones. Horemheb knew of extinction and was of such a mind that he did not decide that his people, any more than thousands of other forms of life, or, indeed, more than many a larger, stronger, handsomer, finer people, was somehow immune to its twilight and unending night.
But they had survived. They had continued to live in the forest. Perhaps some of the brethren understood this. Horemheb thought that might be possible. He himself, known from youth as different, had never been permitted in the secret places, or taught the oldest lore. Some of the brethren, and, indeed, many far younger than Horemheb, might know these things, but they had never told him, or many others. Gradually over the years Horemheb had begun to sense certain things, not really to understand them, but to sense them, to tiptoe, as it were, on the edge of understanding them. He did know that the most profound truths are sometimes those most seldom spoken, and indeed often those whose utterance was, as though by some secret compact, forbidden, even denied with vehemence. Indeed, those who knew them might be the first to claim ignorance, or to deny them. This undoubtedly gave them power, great power, to know these truths, and act in terms of them, and yet to pretend they did not exist, or must not be believed. But sometimes truths are embodied in traditions, in customs, in ways of life. They are silent, so to speak, but real in the lives of a people. Traditions carry them on, invisibly. Perhaps it was so with the brethren. Perhaps, like unseen companions, with them truths walked on soft feet. These could be like shadows always behind them, never seen, or like furies, come from some remote hell, or angels with swords, guarding gateways through which they could never return. Or they might be memories too deep for recollection, of deeds antedating by eons not only the most ancient of annals, and not only the most ancient fragments of the histories drawn on rocks, and not only the most ancient fragments of the winter songs, taught at hearths since the capture of fire, but speech itself. Yet these memories too deep for recollection, these thoughts too deep for thinking, in any normal sense, which may have antedated the invention of the meaningful sound, might remain active in the people, forming them, giving them shape. Horemheb considered how such a memory, or traces indicative of such a memory, recreating its surrogate and image, its fidelity, or indeed its recurrent actuality, through genetic selections, through innatenesses, might be transmitted from generation to generation. Such a thing would be possible Horemheb knew, but, if it were actual, surely profound and subtle.
Let us suppose that a natural memory consists of, or is caused by, or is invariably correlated with, a certain alignment of fibers, or certain patterns of electrochemical activity, or interactions, or certain states of the brain, or with some such complex and mysterious thing, or arrangements, or patterns. If these same alignments, so to speak, can occur in more than one way then it seems one might speak of a memory, or of something perhaps even deeper, which lay beneath both memory and invention. In this sense one might, in a sense, without recourse to a putative preexistence of individuals, or the transmigrations of souls, or such, be said, even in a frail, doomed, mortal frame, to remember events, and deeds, and thoughts which antedated one's birth, deeds which, so to speak, might have occurred thousands of years before the birth of one's oldest known ancestors. To be sure, if one wishes to restrict discourse narrowly, one might say that such is impossible, because of the meanings assigned words, to remember what one has never personally experienced, but that is, in a sense, to beg a question. For example, it would be easy enough to use words differently, so that one might, in a new sense, be said to remember what one has never personally experienced except, of course, in its memory. But more importantly, if the alignments, so to speak, however produced, whether by some genetic transmission, perhaps eccentric to a species, perhaps favored by selection, or by the subtle, unspoken transmissions within generations, through simple but subtle enculturations, by those ways in which we learn, and are unaware that we have learned, what most deeply shapes us and moves us, are indistinguishable from those of the natural memory, it seems one might speak of "memory." But these thoughts, Horemheb told himself, are absurd, and what have they to do with the journey, and the string, and the platform? But then who knows what are the deepest and most secret motivations of the heart? It is known they cannot be what they are commonly claimed to be, and are frenziedly and hysterically insisted upon, but what are they?
Who, Horemheb wondered, are the brethren? And, too, Horemheb wondered upon himself, for he did not know who he was, but only that he, too, was of the brethren. He had never denied that, and never would. He was of the brethren. Without the brethren, outside of the brethren, he was nothing. But, too, he was different. He wanted to know who they were, and who he was, who was one of them. That was not too much, surely. And so it was in search of knowledge, called by the journey, summoned by it, enticed by it, driven, tormented, and lashed by it, eager to seek and fearing what might be found, that Horemheb had once again left the village at sunset, that he had once again sought the string which would take him to the platform.
Horemheb drew shut the strings on his small sack of meal and, with difficulty, aided by the staff, rose to his feet. He looked up into the moonless sky. On his ancient visage was reflected the dim, yellowish light of the lantern fruit, retaining its recollection of the day's sun, but Horemheb did not see it, of course, as he was blind. He had not always been blind. Once he had been as sharp-sighted, as quick, as any of the brethren. But long ago, so long ago that there were none amongst the brethren alive now who could remember it, he had sought the platform, the first time that he had done so after sunset. At such a time, of course, not even the string had been tied between the trees. Long before that first nocturnal journey Horemheb, of course, had undertaken his travels, sat at the feet of elders, read his parchments, sought others, conducted his researches, and pondered on the puzzles which had, even from his early youth, intrigued him, and then, as his wisdom increased, begun to frighten him. He was already old, and shivering in his hut, when the images, like furtive presences in the night, like rodents in the darkness, had begun to haunt him, had begun, so to speak, to prowl about his ears, and scamper over his old body at night, as though scornful of any longer concealing their presence from one so weak, from one from whom they had nothing to fear. It was difficult to catch these images in the darkness, for they were quick and elusive, but Horemheb thought they were the shadows of truths, not some blazing, triumphant truth that would vindicate the brethren and himself, that would dispel darkness with light and trumpets, with sunlight and processions, but small truths, not really important in the vastness of the universe, truths more like shadows, more like rodents in the darkness. And these truths, if such they were, for he did not care to welcome them as such, hinted at the greater thing behind them, at the darker thing behind them, the thing which was more vast and terrible than they, at the forces in the heart, at the memory. One night Horemheb had awakened and thought that he had screamed a scream, though it must have been a silent scream for it aroused none of the brethren. Something had come to him in his sleep which had terrified him. This was not, he knew, one of the small truths, which spoke of the diminutiveness of the brethren and himself, so tiny in the framework of things, but a truth which was not of the brethren, but was in its way the brethren, much as one might have a truth which was not about the pebble or the branch, but which was, in some mysterious cognitive alchemy, the being of the pebble or the branch, or its explanation, or its code or key, what told what it was and why it was so.
That very night, still shuddering from the dream, drenched with sweat, shivering in his blanket, Horemheb rose up and, heedless of the stealthy ones, hastened to the platform. He had realized that the secret he sought lay not in the bright court of the village, to be found in the light of day, within the fence, but outside the village, beyond those frail palings, through the forest, away from the village, in the darkness. That was the first time he had gone to the platform at night. He had come back alone in the morning from the platform. He had been noticeably different then from what he been the day before. He sat alone in his hut for three days, seeing no one and not eating. On the third day he taken his scarp and gouged out his own eyes. This, as I have indicated, occurred long ago. Indeed, as I have indicated, there are none alive today who remember it, other than Horemheb himself. He did not explain why he had done what he did, nor was he asked. The brethren are a tactful folk and the endemic courtesy which is custom, if not law, with them mitigates against the impropriety of inquiring too deeply into matters which might prove sensitive. They assumed, doubtless, that Horemheb had had his reasons for his act, reasons which must be, in his own mind at least, sufficient for its accomplishment, reasons it might not be wise to inquire into. They did determine that he had gone to the platform at night, however, which is not customary, though it is not unlawful, for the brethren. Perhaps he should not have done that. Who knew what he had seen there? It was conjectured it must have been unpleasant. The brethren were content to let Horemheb bear the weight of this secret, if it were one. Better he than they. Now, of course, all accepted the fact that Horemheb was blind, and old, and foolish. Still he had seen something that they had not seen. But perhaps it was better that it not have been seen.
Horemheb, of course, never told anyone what he had seen. From this one might have supposed that perhaps he had learned the secret, or that he had apprehended the truth, or that he had discovered the memory, or the thing like a memory, which lay like a stone and a fountain within the brethren. But this was not so. If he had learned these things, or recollected them, or whatever, he would not have returned later to the platform. You see, to the contrary, at the platform that night, he had not really learned the secret; he had not there, before the platform, understood the memory, the half-suspected memory, which might not even exist; no, he had not there, at the platform, perceived the truth at last, something which might have redeemed himself and the brethren, which might have made it all worthwhile, or, if not that, at least intelligible; no, no coin was obtained there of inestimable worth, or even one of paltry value, nor even a truth which might in its glory or hideousness have blasted him. Rather it was something else he saw there, something which he had not expected and which frightened him. It was only after he had returned home and thought and thought, and twice dreamed, that he suspected the meaning of what he saw, not that he knew that meaning, or understood it, but only that he suspected it. What he had seen there, he became certain, although it was not in itself the secret, not in itself the truth, or the memory, was something which nonetheless appertained to the secret, something which was not the truth or the memory but which might not be entirely unrelated to the truth, or to the memory, something which had something to do with all three, or one, as the case might be, or else it was something which might, in some terrible way, itself know the secret, the truth, the memory. After Horemheb had inflicted such indignity and pain upon himself, he did not return for revolutions to the platform. Then, one evening, ten revolutions, and a hundred mournings and festivals, after he had inflicted his cruel injuries upon himself, that he might not again see what he saw, that his eyes should never show him such a thing again, he returned to the platform. We do not really know why he returned to that fateful place. Perhaps, in the beginning, he was curious to know if he had been mistaken on that distant night, if he had really seen what he thought he had seen, or if it were an illusion of the senses, or a dream.
Perhaps, on the other hand, he was mad or labored in the grip of some monstrous compulsion. In any event he had had the string tied by the brethren during the brightness of the day and then, one evening, when the sun was sinking behind the trees and the shadows of the fence were long and jagged on the clearing, and the fruit of the lantern trees was becoming visible in the gloom, he returned to the platform. Since that time he had made the journey several times, many, many times, a great number of times, taking with him his staff and his small sack of meal. The string which was now again dried and thin, worn by the winter and the weather, pelted by the rain, sometimes sheathed with ice, chilled by snow, swaying beneath the trees, had been replaced a number of times. But it was, in a sense, you see, the same string; it was always the same string, as it always marked the same trail; it always traced the same journey. It is in that sense it was the same string. It always led to the platform. Why then did Horemheb return to the platform? We do not really know. I think it was because he suspected that in its vicinity was the secret, the memory, the truth. I think he came back to the platform because he wanted to know, because even in his age and pain, and his fear, and given the terror of what he suspected, he wanted to know, or perhaps because it was merely he had not yet been satisfied, or because he was insatiably restless, or because he was inveterately curious, that perhaps as a consequence of some ineradicable affliction inherited from some remote unknown ancestry, an ancestry he might in an earlier day have despised or found laughable had it suddenly, from a depth of bushes, peered out at him, or perhaps because he still hoped to unravel the riddles of his distant youth, that youth like an unfinished dream, so lost, yet so constantly present, so far away, yet so near. On the other hand, he may have come back to the platform because he had no choice really, because the journey called him. Perhaps the truth is as simple as that. Let those to whom journeys call speculate on the possibility of that. For myself I do not know, and I do not think others do either. Perhaps he was merely the sort who cannot refrain from digging with sticks into the sores on his own body. That is possible. The species are rare in the universe, but they exist, those which torture themselves.
Now Horemheb continued his journey. Then, after less than one of the twenty-five segments of a rotation, the divisions of a lightness from a lightness, he felt beneath his feet not the softness of the forest trail, the crushed leaves and the dust, that curious mixture of particles wounded to powder by long treading, but the flat stones. It was there that the string ended. With his staff Horemheb tapped ahead of himself, scratching now and then at the stones to determine their setting, and the directions of the cracks between them. It was still night. Had he been able to see them the stars were full and, behind, in the forest, the lantern fruits hung like lamps from the branches of the trees. He supposed the platform looked much the same as always. No one knew its age, but it was known that there had been an innumerable number of platforms before this one, built on this same spot. That was testified to by records as old as those the brethren possessed. No one, at least as far as Horemheb knew, knew why the first one had been built here, or what the point of the platform was.
In a little time, for the area of the flat stones was not really large, the tip of Horemheb's staff, moving gently before him, inquisitive, like something alive, sniffing, groping, alert, an extension of his spirit, an emblem of his quest, touched the first stair. There were three of these, if one counts the level of the dais on which the platform had been erected. Horemheb climbed the steps and, because he conjectured he was early, he sat down, cross-legged, before the platform. The platform itself was not high, once one had ascended to the dais on which it was erected. Horemheb, who was not large, not even amongst the brethren, could have put out his hand, had he been standing, and placed his full palm upon it. But he did not stand before the platform, as he was surely early. Rather he sat there, cross-legged, before the platform, with the sack of meal and his staff beside him, took out the parchments, and, from the irregular surfaces, traced the sayings. He did not fear the stealthy ones in this place, for they did not come here.
After a division of a revolution Horemheb rolled the parchments and tied them shut.
He then rose slowly to his feet. He did not use his staff this time to help him rise. He did hold the sack of meal.
He had heard it ascend to the platform, with one movement, from the back. It had been quiet but Horemheb did not think that it had been concerned to conceal its presence. Rather that was the way it moved.
"Speak," said Horemheb, after a time. "Speak!"
Horemheb knew it was close to him. He knew its presence, especially here, in this place. Sometimes it was so close to him he could have put out its his hand and touched it. Once he had done so, on a rainy night. The fur had been wet and matted. There had been a strong smell upon it.
"You know why I have come," said Horemheb. "Speak."
The thing moved about, twice, turning, on the platform, and bit at its fur, doubtless to rid itself of vermin.
"Speak," said Horemheb.
But the thing did not speak.
Horemheb had read the parchments, but they had been silent. In his distant youth he had sat before the elders, but they had not told him, if they knew. He had made long journeys, even to the place of smoke and ships, but had not found what he sought. Now, again, he had come to the platform.
"Speak," begged Horemheb.
But Horemheb heard only the wind, and the soft sounds from amongst the rocks.
"I have come through the forest," said Horemheb. "I have braved the darkness. I have stood before the platform. A thousand times I have brought my body and my staff, and my question, to this place, and have not been heeded. A thousand times I have returned to the village empty-handed."
"Speak!" said Horemheb.
But it did not speak.
Horemheb then put the sack of meal on the platform, as his small offering, small in value to many, but a gift of considerable price to Horemheb.
Horemheb then bent down and picked up his staff. He descended from the dais and found the string once more, which he would follow back to the village.
Behind him the beast looked down at the sack of meal between its paws. It was not such stuff that the beast ate.