Night fell while Niara and Hati stood watch over the pyre. For the occasion, the Niara wore her best clothing, a handwoven organdy tunic and bush walker sandals with laces that climbed up her calves. Hati also wore her finest, the blood-orange-colored sarong that had been a gift from Niara for surviving her first hunt. Both glowing in the firelight, the pale hunter and the dark priestess watched their foster mother burn. Villagers had already come, sang their respects, and gone leaving the grieving sisters to tend to the corpse.
As Baba Gen’s body went up in flames, cicadas swelled the air with their tuneless song. The warm breath of the earth danced between the tongues of the flames and tugged at the hemline of Niara’s tunic. The moon was slow to rise but the firelight kept the thick blanket of darkness that enveloped the outskirts of the compound at bay. The lonesome pair silently endured the indescribably unnerving smells. Bubbling flesh. Burning sinew. Charring bone.
Niara inhaled sensi smoke from her pipe, remembered, and contemplated the inheritance Baba Gen had left behind; her bones, her pipe and the most enigmatic of all, a black, rectangular relic small enough to fit in the palm of Niara’s hand. The relic had been wrapped in a piece of parchment. On the parchment, Baba Gen had scrawled a crude map to the village east of Boabab with a message written in the script of their ancestors. Niara had no idea what the note said, since she couldn’t read the ancient text. Common sense suggested someone at the eastern village could.
“You’re thinking of going. Aren’t you?” Hati broke the silence, her voice low and filled with anxiety. “The village needs you. Let’s send someone else.”
Niara glanced sideways at her foster sister. She exhaled slowly, sensi smoke curling up into the air between them. The village had more pressing needs than a religious figurehead to bless the hunt and offer up prayers for the dead. Their water supply was dwindling and in the bush, predators far outnumbered the game. The village was on the verge of collapse. At this rate, her people would be lucky to last another year. No amount of belief in the bones was going to save Niara’s people but venturing east might. She didn’t know what answers were waiting out there. Her decision was based more on a gut feeling about Baba Gen’s clue than anything else.
“I’m going, Hati,” she declared at length. “It’s not as if my presence is necessary for the hunt and while I’m gone, someone else can shake the bones and burn the dead for a change.”
The elder sister’s mouth twisted as she gestured for Niara to hand over her pipe and share the sensi.
“You’ve never been much of a believer. I know that much. Never quite took you for a complete heretic though.”
Niara merely grunted and handed over the pipe.
As the fire died down, Niara closed her eyes. She offered up a final prayer for her dead mentor and she and Hati scraped up the hot ashes into a massive clay jar. When their work was done, they placed the cover on the jar and carried it to the burial mound nearby. They buried the jar before returning to the village.
They walked in silence. For Hati, it was a habit brought about by her vocation. Never a fan of useless chatter, Niara was quite comfortable with the silence between them though. Rather than talking, she preferred to think about what she would do next and how she would survive on her own in the bush. She’d joined the group hunt countless times but unlike Hati, Niara had never braved the wilderness alone. Plus, she knew there was more than the lions and the crocodiles to be feared. It was said that in the deeper heart of the bush, everything was trying to kill you, even the flowers. Everything was to be feared.
Still, Niara couldn’t let go of that gnawing feeling, the feeling that somewhere out there was a chance for her people to survive and perhaps even thrive. That feeling, that hope was stronger than her fear. Maybe even stronger than her trust in the sensi, which Niara believed in more than the bones. Baba Gen had clearly thought that chance for survival lay in the eastern village, so to the east Niara would go.
West of the burial grounds, the village seemed dormant. Boabab, the ancient craft that had brought Niara’s people to this world, jutted out center of the village. The top of the partially skeletonized monument pierced the sky, pointing to the place from which Niara’s people had come. The village constructed with parts of the cannibalized ship, splayed out in its shadow, surrounded by a metal enclosure meant to keep out predatory wildlife and human attackers. Haphazard wooden ramparts cradled the village’s creaky gate. Beyond the gate was the wilderness. Beyond the vast wilderness was the gigantic wall separating humans from the territory of the Doan, the original denizens of this world.
Over a hundred years had passed since the early landers brokered a deal with the Doan, ensuring humanity’s continued survival on the alien planet. Humans were welcome on the Doan planet as long as they remained within the confines of the wall. Every human child was taught that this world belonged to the Doan. The Doan didn’t interact with the humans. The ship’s records had been destroyed and Niara didn’t know of a single soul who even remembered what the Doan looked like. Still, no one questioned the Law. Inside this massive enclosure, humans were born, lived out their lives and died, never setting foot beyond the great barrier. It was the best a people without a world of their own could ask for. That was what Niara had been taught.
“When are you leaving?” Hati asked when they reached th entrance to Boabab.
“The sooner the better,” Niara answered.
With a small wave, she retreated into the bowels of the broken down, vine-covered ship.