Entering his hut, the triumphant hunter forgot the still-warm blood dripping from his hard-won carcass, as an unexpected smell of fear assailed him. His eyes sought his woman in the dim fire-light, finding her cowering with his children in the furthest corner. He recognized her terror, without understanding the cause. She crept forward to take the fresh meat, eyes downcast, her body shrinking within the folds of her goat skin. Confused, he turned away from her and squatted, staring silently into the huts fire. His exultant return lay in ashes.
The hut held an unnatural quiet, broken only by the sounds of his woman preparing the meat, and the occasional whimper from the youngest child. The hunter could feel the older children’s eyes upon him, watching, waiting. His woman placed the dressed meat over the fire, unwillingly exposing her freshly-bruised body.
Pain scorched through him, pulling his muscles tight. Those bruises shrieked a horrifying tale, of poaching, theft, rape. His throat constricted. Thoughts crashed around his brain; mocking, hateful, conflicting. That she had allowed another man to take her, however brutally, was unforgivable. Tribal law dictated he must beat her. Punish her.
He repelled the idea. She was a good woman. He’d beaten her only once in their twelve winters together, after the unacceptable arrival of a fourth daughter. He required sons. She had proven her contrition by next producing twin boys. Strong boys. Hunters.
Yes, she was a good woman. Last full moon, he had bestowed on her the highest honor, rarely given. His brothers had dragged her to the tribal campfire, where strong arms pinned her down whilst his mark had been tattooed into her face. Spirits shrieked through his woman that night. Driven by her screams, the tribe had danced and chanted wildly, celebrating her new status. Few women were so marked. She was a good woman. His. For life.
Flame tentacles licked up towards the cooking meat. Melting fat hissed as it dropped into the fire. He let the heat burn into his heart. He waited for a sign; for the name of the monster who had done this terrible thing to his woman. From the flames, the name came. His brother. Disbelieving, the hunter tossed the name aside, but it came again. He threw his arms up in horror, and beside him, his woman gave a low guttural moan. His revenge would befit the crime; committed in his absence, painful and obvious. Tribal justice would not be served by a single spear.
The hunter left camp that night, pushing deep into the forest. His brother’s face mocked him from every tree-trunk. The birds scorned him, screeching, scathing. Trees, dark and forbidding, blocked his way. Chilling rain pelted him; the creeks flooded to bar his way. He fought on, heedless of the passing days. Seething anger fed his body. He rested only when his legs betrayed him. He dreamt of evil, and revenge.
The hunter finally stumbled into the place he sought. He’d not been here before. His grandfather had shown him images of its deathly power. Few had ever survived breaching these sacred borders.
The boggy ground sucked greedily at the hunter. Deadly red-veined swamp plants reached towards him, ready to strike with their venom. He searched for the safety of an Umuk bush. With great care he covered his hands with its wide leaves, then tentatively approached a swamp plant. Tentacles of fear squeezed his breath. He snapped a fat stem, freeing its leaf. Death sprang forward in the spraying juice, but missed its target.
The hunter folded pieces of Umuk around the swamp leaf, then wrapped it with reed, making a tight bundle. Afraid of the poisons power, the hunter wrapped it again and again. He imagined the venom oozing its way out, finding his skin. Terrified, he threw the bundle down and stood, staring. Images of his woman’s bruises pushed back into his mind. Revenge picked up the bundle; cold hard revenge. He turned for home.
The journey back was faster. Creeks burbled their approval, birds sang to his soul. Trees stood back solemnly to let him pass. Needing no rest, he traveled swiftly; a hunter set on the game. His quarry waited.
Finally, the smell of smoke confirmed he was close to his tribe’s camp. The hunter paused, out of sight in the trees. His kinsmen were squatted around the tribal campfire. There was no laughter or song this night, no hovering women or children, as the tribe waited, wary. He crept closer, taking care to remain merged with the shadows, unseen. From the forest edge he could see the fear in his brother’s eyes, and the useless attempt to stay marginally safe in the company of others.
The hunter waited, sure of his invisibility. His quarry twitched nervously, as though smelling the danger. Increasing cold forced the tribesmen to their huts. The unattended fire smouldered on. Silence hung heavily over the camp.
An unexpected movement startled the hunter. His brother’s woman appeared, crouching low. She silently lay her mans goat-skin on the ground, in front of their huts entrance-way. She paused, looking out into the night. The hunter felt her eyes burn through him. He held his breath. She retreated, leaving the goatskin exposed. Still the hunter waited. Immobility cramped his muscles. He pushed away tempting thoughts of his warm hut. Justice before comfort; revenge before peace.
Just as the first light of morning fingered the horizon, the hunter warily approached his brother’s hut. He hesitated, trying to recall happy bonds and childhood memories, but his woman’s fear crashed across his brain. Her bruises bloodied his soul. With shaking fingers, he unwrapped the umuk, revealing the venomous swamp leaf. His anger drove the juices into his brother’s cloth. Done, the hunter crept away, moving towards the rising sun.
Several days passed before he returned to camp, laden with fresh meat. His woman accepted the offering with a shy smile. His children danced around him, laughingly showing off their prowess. He looked across to where his brother’s hut had been reduced to funeral pyre ashes glowing warm on the ground. The unmarked widow stood with her back to the group, staring into the coals. She turned, bowing her head to the returned hunter, eyes downcast, accepting imminent death. He quietly approached her, feeling no anger towards this woman, but no desire either. With kind hands, he gently lifted her chin until her eyes met his, and he smiled. Disbelief flooded her. He felt her body sag as she let go of her fear. The tribe would look after her now. The hunter turned to his family, deeply content, gathering his woman close.