The Elder

The copter span, the greens and browns of the rapidly approaching ground blurring into each other. I grabbed onto the chassis and for the first time in forever prayed as the pilot cursed. Just before we hit the ground I closed my eyes against the tears.

++++

I was hanging, my legs dangling awkwardly to the side. I opened my eyes. The pilot stared back at me, motionless, dead. I made a mental inventory. Everything seemed bruised, but not excruciatingly painful. How could I have survived that? The cabin lay on its side. I fumbled the catch of my harness, dropping onto the bulwark that now made up my floor. I clambered through the shattered cockpit window into the field.

I carefully straightened up, stretching my punished back. We’d landed in a field of maize, still only a couple of feet tall. The horizon looked too close, the ring of mountains from the extinct volcano giving the tiny plateau a claustrophobic feel.

To my left, a yell. I turned. A handful of men were running towards me, only a few hundred metres away. An answering yell came from the opposite direction. I wondered if the pilot was armed. Even a flare gun would have been reassuring. Still, I had planned to make contact with these people. True, I would have preferred it was on my own terms, with safeguards in place, but an anthropologist has to take some risks sometimes. I breathed in deeply and tried to look as non-threatening as possible.

They skidded to a halt several metres short of the wrecked copter and stared at me. I took the opportunity to return the favour. They were all male, in their teens or early twenties. They wore rough cotton clothing, though it was woven with intricate patterns. No wool, so they had no llamas then. That seemed reasonable. Even a llama would not be able to scale the mountains that cut off this plateau. To my relief, they carried no weapons. I’d postulated before I came that they were a stone-age people with no access to iron ore, but stone knives and wooden arrows could be just as lethal.

I spread my arms in the universal sign of non-hostile intent. “Hola. Habla Espanol?”

They made no response. Of course not. When had they last had contact with the outside world? Had they ever since the first colonists?

The bravest of them stepped forward and said something, pointing at my face. Somewhere in there I recognized the Quechua word for blood. The last few years in the Peruvian Amazon had made me almost fluent in the language of the Incas. So, they’d been isolated from before the conquistadors. I could already hear the plaudits from my peers, see the awards for my published journals. I put my hand to my head. It came back bloody.

“Blood,” I said in Quechua, surprised.

The leader of the gang repeated it. The accent was wrong, thick. I had to concentrate to understand, but it was remarkable that the language had remained even recognisable, given their isolation. It was difficult to concentrate with such a noise going on, though. I turned to track down the source of the buzzing. As I turned, the ground shifted, then threw itself at my face. I closed my eyes.

++++

Something touched my face, gentle, close to my eye. I flicked it away and opened my eyes. A young woman sat back, startled.

“Hello,” I said, and then remembered. “Hello,” I repeated, this time in Quechua. She laughed and repeated it with a different emphasis. Of course. The universal joke, laughing at a foreigner’s pronunciation.

“I am Ted,” I said, pointing to my chest.

“Quitzama,” she said, placing her hand on her own chest. “Drink.”

She turned and picked up a clay bowl. I struggled up onto one elbow and took a sip, then coughed it down my front. I hadn’t been expecting the sour weak beer. “Water?” I said.

“No. Drink this. It is better.”

I sipped at the beer. It was room temperature, and not at all like the beers I was used to. I drank it hurriedly, in case it came back again.

I was in a dark room, on a low cot. Reeds covered the floor. A patterned curtain covered the doorway. Apart from that, the room was bare. Quitzama stared as I drank, unembarrassed. When I finished I handed the bowl back. She reached out and gently touched my face, to the side of my eyes.

“Do they hurt?” she said.

“My eyes? No. Why?”

“No, not your eyes. These, here and here.”

She stroked my face by my eyes and down my jaw.

“No.”

“Did they bleed when they cut you?”

“Well, only here.” I reached to the side of my head where I’d hit it. I felt the poultice there. “But it’s better now.”

She shrugged. I felt I’d somehow not answered her question adequately, but she rose and stood by the door.

“I must tell the Elder you are awake.” Then she was gone.

By the time the curtain opened again I had managed to sit upright on the edge of the cot. The elder walked in. As might be expected, his clothing was far grander than the youths I’d seen in the field. His robes were brightly coloured, and he wore a hat of Condor feathers. What I didn’t expect was his age. He looked to be in his twenties. A woman followed him, hardly more than a girl. She was plainly pregnant, and well advanced, by the look of her.

The Elder faced me, dropped to his knees and bowed so low his head touched my feet.

“Please, rise.” Despite a lifetime studying other cultures, customs sometimes embarrassed me. We never lose our early conditioning. He sat up and rocked back onto his haunches, squatting in front of me.

“I am the Elder,” he said.

“I am Ted. I am, um, a traveller.”

He nodded. “You are not a god.” It sounded more like a statement than a question.

“No, I’m a man, like you.”

“Yes. A god would not die when he fell.”

I felt a pang of guilt. I hadn’t even thought about the pilot since I awoke.

“Who did that?” he asked, drawing a finger down the side of his face.

“What?”

He reached out like Quitzama had and touched the side of my face.

“The cuts are old. Why did they cut your face?”

“Cut? I don’t have any cuts. I cut my head in the fall, but not my face.”

“I have nine thousand eight hundred and sixty-two days. How many do you have?”

I did some mental maths. Say three hundred and fifty days to a year, three and a half thousand to ten years, so ten thousand days would put him in his late twenties. So I would have… I gave up.

“Forty-eight years.”

“Years?” He seemed amazed. Had I used the right word?

“Yes. Um, twenty thousand days?” That sounded right. Double his age and add a few. “Perhaps a few more.”

He turned to the pregnant girl, who had remained standing, staring at me as though I had two heads. “See how they bless us? Was a woman blessed like this? He does not even know his days.” She smiled nervously. Well, that was a common enough reaction. Outsiders in isolated cultures were treated with a mixture of fascination and fear.

“Stand,” he said, holding out his hand. I gingerly lifted myself off the cot, using him for support. He stood close, staring at my face, then turned and led me slowly outside.

It was late afternoon. The hut was on the edge of the village we’d seen from the air. The space between the huts were crammed with people. My exit from the hut was greeted with a roar, then sudden silence. We looked at each other, me, a European who had seen cultures from all over the globe, and them, who had only ever known their own people.

Something wasn’t right. I was an anthropologist, trained to observe. There was something wrong with the picture but I couldn’t place my finger on it. Perhaps the bash on the head slowed me down or maybe the beer was stronger than I thought. It bothered me I couldn’t consciously spot the anomaly my subconscious was trying to warn me about.

The Elder held his hands over his head.

“People. Today we have a new brother.” The crowd murmured an echo of his words. This was a obviously a ritual. New brother? Had there been other visitors? No, surely not. “He was born of -” He stopped and looked round at me, puzzled. Then he grinned. “He was born of the sky and the earth.”

Ah, not a ritual greeting of strangers at all then, but a birthing ceremony.

“Today he has twenty thousand days!”

The crowded erupted, the ceremony forgotten. The Elder waved his hands for silence. Eventually the wall of sound died away.

The Elder turned to me and removed his hat. He held it out to me.

“You are the Elder,” he said.

“Thank you, but I don’t want to be the Elder.” Anthropologists observe, they don’t participate.

“No-one wants to be Elder,” he said, smiling.

“No, really, I can’t.”

He leant close, his smile suddenly gone. “Do not shame yourself,” he hissed. “You must be the Elder. Why else would you be given to us?” He stepped back and placed the hat on my head. I decided that, at least for now, I would go along with it. After all, this wasn’t exactly a text-book study so far. The crowd shouted their approval.

“I am Chapteli,” he said. “I am not the Elder. For this, I thank you.” He held me close in a bear hug.

“I thank you, um, for the honour.” It wasn’t exactly ‘Doctor Livingston, I presume’, but it was all I could think to say. “Are you sure about this? I mean, don’t you still want to be the Elder?”

“How can I? You have twenty thousand days.”

And then it hit me, the anomaly. I turned slowly, looking at all the young faces staring at me.

“Chapteli, where are the old people?”

“You are the Elder.”

“You mean, before I arrived, you were the eldest?”

“I was the Elder. Now you are the Elder.”

“What happened to them? What happens to you?”

“The world is very small, Elder. The gods made it so. The world is half a day to the edge. They made the world, and they made the plants, and they made the first people. The first people were nine hundred and seventy-six.”

“Nine hundred and seventy-six,” murmured the crowd.

“They made the world thus, and the corn, and the water, that the first people could live in the world. But the first people were not happy, and wanted more, so they grew in number, and the corn was not enough to feed them, and the cotton not enough to clothe them, and the water not enough for their thirst. So they called to the gods, and this was their answer. Nine hundred and seventy-six.”

The crowd echoed the answer from the gods.

“And so it is. The world is the world, and the people are nine hundred and seventy-six. When a new brother arrives, the eldest leaves. You are the Elder. The village and all it has is yours. You are blessed.”

I snatched the hat off my head.

“I don’t want to be the Elder. I am not one of your people.”

Chapteli smiled and looked at the ripe belly of the young girl.

“Do not worry Elder. It will not be for long.”

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

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