The People of the Mesa
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by Ardath Mayhar
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: Responsible for protecting his people, Uhtatse urges them to build houses in the sheltering cliffsides, but the Elders refuse. Uhtatse and his wife build such a house and when a new enemy becomes a threat, the Elders admit their people would be safer there. From their vantage point, they repel a Tsununni attack, inflicting such heavy losses on their enemy that they never again return. At the end of his long life, Uhtatse steps off the point from which his grieving wife cast herself, years before, after they lost their son.
eBook Publisher: The Fiction Works, 2004 http://www.fictionworks.com
eBookwise Release Date: September 2004
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [252 KB]
Reading time: 171-240 min.
The wind was cold. It whipped the leggings about his skinny shanks, set the trailing folds of his rabbit-fur blanket fluttering about his feet. It cut through to the middle of his frail bones, making them twinge with pain. He barely noticed the pain or the chill, however. He had spent his entire life ignoring such matters, and the habit was so ingrained now that it took no effort.
The sun was low atop the mesa across the canyon's width. Shadow filled the valley below the cliff on which he stood, and an eagle was circling, far beyond the range of his fogged vision. Yet he knew by the disturbance of the air and the feel of its living presence that it was there. His life had been spent in knowing such things. Even now, no living thing moved on or above or below the mesa that he did not recognize, note and react to on some deep level of his being.
He was not sensing the eagle, however, or listening to the deer stirring in the oaks of the Middle Way, set between the mesa top and the lowlands beneath the ship-like promontory. He looked down into the safe haven that his people had formed for themselves, sheltered snugly in the many visible crannies in the face of the cliff before him.
When the Tsununni came, fierce after many victories over other tribes, they found, inevitably, that the Ahye-tum-datsehe were no longer easy prey, trapped in their big stone towns atop the mesa. The battles fought there taught his people something, at last, and he found the leverage to turn their old habits into new directions. It was the labor that gave meaning to his life. That thought filled him with satisfaction.
Now he was turning his long years of duty over to the nephew he had trained. He had no old wife sitting beside his fire to comfort his age. No one would stand beside his body and sing the death-song when he went to join his fathers. He had none of the things that made age bearable, except for his memories, and they were wearing thin now.
The sharp scent of juniper moved about him, intensified by the cold wind. Suddenly, he felt light and young, as if he might be able to swoop out over the canyon as the swallows did in the freshness of a summer morning.
He had moved with them, all his life, his senses meshing with theirs as they raced through the canyon-maze, seeing the flickers of firelight in the big town and the smaller groupings of dwellings and single houses built into cracks that seemed too small for anything but the nest of a swallow. In his mind, he saw in its entirety the complex of homes that he had caused his people to build into the walls of the mesa.
He perched on a stone and stared as the sun halved itself on the horizon. It quartered itself, and then it was gone amid a field of softest gold and garnet. So many sunsets had played themselves out before his eyes, so many dawns, so many nights of moon or of blackness.
The wind whipped more briskly through the canyon, riffling the fur on his blanket. Below his position, as the palest of glimmers, he could see a lip of stone thrusting out over the sheer drop into the valley. He recalled that stone with particular vividness; it reminded him of Ihyannah, his wife. That brought a twinge to his heart, even after all the winters that had passed since she had sat there, singing.
He was old. Until the task of smelling the wind passed to his successor, he had not really admitted that or thought of it. But now he knew, throughout himself. He was old, and his usefulness was at an end. The vision that had been his had passed to the young One Who Smelled the Wind, and he could feel it draining away from his body and his spirit, as each day passed.
Now, for the first time since he was a boy of fourteen summers, he had the time to think of his life and the things it had brought to him and to the Ahye-tum-datsehe. The security of his childhood seemed almost a dream now.
Only two or three of the oldest men and women of the tribe could recall, with him, those days when summers had been cooler, snow deeper in winter to provide water for the next year's crops, deer more numerous, and enemies distant and comparatively unthreatening. The younger ones could remember only the worsening weather and some few recalled the old enemy, the Kiyate, who had raided the dwellings on the top of the mesa. The newer enemy, never completely conquered, was one that everyone knew and feared.
The Kiyate were gone. Uhtatse wondered still where they had fled when the Tsununni drove them away and took their place. It had been a bad trade. The Tsununni were not as easily discouraged from raiding as the Kiyate had been, although many years might pass between their forays. The infrequency of their raids was the only good thing about the change.
Now his kind was fairly safe from the incursions of enemies, but the weather was a thing that no man could change, and the gods seemed not to hear the chants that begged for a less cruel sun and more water.
Uhtatse had a bad feeling, deep in his bones, that matters for his people might alter for the worse, as the years went forward. In time, he thought, with cold depression, they might have to go away entirely from the mesa that had been the home of the Ahye-tum-datsehe for as long as they had been a People.
Indeed, he had gone once to one of the Old Women to have her dream the future for him. Her dream had seemed like nonsense at the time, but now years had passed, generations of his kind had moved past his dimming gaze, and now he knew that she had seen a Truth, strange as it might seem.
To balance that vision, he had gone to one of the Old Men and asked for a dream of the past. Even anchored in tradition as that dream had been, it held matters that puzzled the younger Uhtatse and still filled him with bewilderment.
Now he stood at the edge of death. The matters of life and of time were stilled to a peculiar clarity.
Sitting in the worsening wind, he seemed to see down a long valley into the world of his youth. Every stone and leaf and incident of that valley's length came clear and immediate to his inner eye. When he turned his gaze in the opposite direction, he could see another valley stretching away, but there was a bend in its course. Beyond that, he could see nothing but a dim glow, as if a sun were rising there beyond his sight.
His feet were growing numb. Uhtatse knew that if he did not rise now and work his way down the cliff-face into the shelter of the stone walls, to the warmth of the fires, he would die in the place where he now sat.
Yet, why should he seek to live longer? He had done the work for which he had been chosen, all those many winters before. He had lived as is fitting for One Who Smelled the Wind.
Why should he not die here on the lip of the cliff with the pinpoint glows of his people's fires smiling at him from below and across the gorge? His work was done, and now there was time to retrace his steps, to see and understand what it was that he had learned and what had been and what had been accomplished.
The ancient closed his eyes, and tears from the chill trickled down his cheeks. He didn't notice, for he was seeing into the past.