They are the rotting rats scurrying along the shadows of society.
— Chyobizo Nichikōse, The Lost
Rutejìmo ran because it was the only thing he could do. His pains had intensified over the hours of running in the sun. The sharp edge of dehydration turned the discomfort of his injuries into piercing agony.
He tried to get water from two separate oases, but the guards at each one rebuked him. After the second attempt, he toyed with the idea of using the Shimusògo name for just one stop, but the words wouldn't come. He wasn't sure if it was pride or honor, but he couldn't muster the courage to the claim the clan, even in his mind.
He focused on the road ahead of him, trying to cling to the faltering euphoria of running. His head ached, and his body screamed in agony with every strike of his foot against the hardened ground, but he couldn't stop running. Every time he considered it, the image of Mapábyo rose up in his mind. The look of hurt, betrayal, and anger kept playing over in his thoughts, reminding him that he had missed the most important thing in his life. She could be halfway to the cliffs by now, and he would be running for no other reason than to speed his death, but his memories drove him forward as much as the spirit bird running before him.
Ahead, a thin wisp of colored smoke rose from the side of the road to mark the presence of a guarded oasis. He hoped they would give him water, but doubted it would end differently than the last three attempts. His guts were already twisted in knots, and the ache burned along his limbs. If the world needed to remind him of his failure, it had been proven beyond a doubt that the desert hated those without a clan.
He needed water. Needed it more than anything else in his life. Any amount would be salvation at this point, even if he had to suck it off the rocks or through sand. The oasis could be his last chance. Though he already knew they would chase him away, he angled toward it in bitter hope.
What felt like a day later, he came to a skidding halt in front of the oasis. Being mid-day, the dirty camping plots around the stone-covered well were empty. A few teenagers swept them clean while some women were repairing a sheltering wall on the outer edge. On the far side, he spotted a wagon filled with wood and a group of a dozen men emptying it into a stack near the central fire pit.
Scattered among the clan were more of the stocky dogs he had seen a few days ago. They were sleeping in the shade or watching the work around them. He recognized the name on the banners that hung off the walls: Tifukòmi.
The clan, human and canine, looked up at him where he stood. Rutejìmo stepped toward the nearest of them, but his arms and legs didn't seem to work. A wave of dizziness slammed into him, and he fell, flailing around before landing heavily on one knee. He pitched forward. The ground rushed up. He groaned from the bolt of agony that shot up from his knees.
Stars burned across his vision. He clawed at the ground until he found purchase, but when he went to lever himself, his strength failed him, and he slumped forward.
Hands grabbed him and pulled him up.
Rutejìmo gasped for breath, each breath a dry wheeze. His lips were cracked, and blood dribbled down the side of his mouth.
Someone offered him a mug, but when his fingers refused to grip it, they held it to his mouth. He gulped down the cool liquid.
“Slowly now, don't choke.” An old man knelt on the ground next to him. He held the mug up to Rutejìmo. His green eyes bore into Rutejìmo, and he did not smile.
Rutejìmo struggled to drink and breathe at the same time. What should have been an easy thing took most of his concentration. After a few seconds of drinking, he gasped and pulled back.
The old man set aside the mug. He cleared his throat until Rutejìmo looked at him. “I am Kamanìo and I speak for Tifukòmi.”
“I-I am Rutejìmo and I can't speak for anyone.”
The hands holding him up tightened and he saw the old man's face twist into a scowl.
Desperate, Rutejìmo pawed at the mug. “Please? All I ask is for some water and I'll go.”
Kamanìo's eyes softened and he shook his head. “You just lost your clan, didn't you?”
Rutejìmo gasped. “H-How did you know?”
“You're running alone in the desert, and you speak for no spirit. You don't know the way of the banyosiōu, yet you obviously are dressed as one. Only one who recently died would even consider the desert. It would be suicide. No one will help you out here, not if you have no clan.”
“I'm learning that. In fact, your clan helped with that lesson.”
“You come from the northeast, that means Tifukomi Tijìko?” At Rutejìmo's nod, Kamanìo sighed. “I can't speak for my son, but he was right. If you were on your feet, I would turn you away just as he did.”
Rutejìmo's eyes burned. “I'm sorry. There… aren't a lot of lessons for what to do and I,” he inhaled roughly, “wasn't really planning on traveling alone.”
Kamanìo's eyes narrowed for a moment. “Who were you meeting?” He held up the mug to Rutejìmo.
Taking the cup, Rutejìmo sipped from it and felt his stomach beginning to unknot.
“I ran with….” The words died in his throat. He couldn't let anyone know that Mapábyo traveled with him willingly, that would risk her own life among the clan. Gasping again, he bowed his head. “I run with no one.”
“And your former clan?”
Rutejìmo couldn't name his clan either, in fear that it would reveal Mapábyo. The Shimusògo were well-known along this route. He shook his head.
Kamanìo gestured to the others with his chin. Hands pushed Rutejìmo firmly into a sitting position before the clan members withdrew and returned to their duties in the camp. In a few seconds, only two gray dogs and the old man remained near Rutejìmo.
With a grunt, Kamanìo got off his knees and sat down.
Rutejìmo watched, his stomach beginning to clench in fear.
“She isn't supposed to be running with you, is she?”
Searching the older man's face, Rutejìmo tried to figure out what he was pushing for. The green eyes, one hazy and one bright, watched him sharply.
“No,” Rutejìmo said finally, “she isn't.” Guilt bore down on him and he bowed his head.
“You put both of your lives at risk by doing this, you know. If someone determines you are chasing after her, they might suspect she knew about it.”
Rutejìmo nodded mutely.
“But,” the old man said, “you are both young and foolish. Which is probably why she went back for you.”
Rutejìmo lifted his gaze, his breath quickening. “She did?”
Kamanìo nodded slowly.
“Sands,” groaned Rutejìmo. He tried to push himself to his feet, but the two dogs growled sharply and he froze.
“No, young man, you need to stay here.”
“I-I have to go back.”
“If you leave then you will surely die.”
Rutejìmo whimpered and looked across the shimmering sands. Heat waves rose up from the road, wavering at the edge of his focus. The idea of running in the heat, even with a little water in his belly, sickened him and all he wanted to do was curl up and cry.
Kamanìo patted him on the leg. “It never gets better, you know.”
“But I have to apologize to her.”
The hand on his leg froze.
“I screwed up so many things, and she… she didn't deserve what I did. What I'm doing to her either.”
Pulling back his hand, Kamanìo stood up with a guttural groan. Both of the dogs came up to him, one on each side, and pressed their bodies against his knees. He reached down to rest his hands on the large hounds' heads. “How badly do you want this?”
Rutejìmo looked up, his eyes burning but no tears coming. “More than anything, Great Tifukomi Kamanìo.”
Kamanìo held out his hand, and Rutejìmo flinched. Instead of hitting him, Kamanìo held his hand out to help Rutejìmo to his feet.
Trembling, Rutejìmo took it and stood up.
The old man pulled Rutejìmo close enough that Rutejìmo could feel his breath and then turned him around. With a firm hand, he pushed Rutejìmo toward one of the shelters. “First, you need water, food, and sleep.”
“This is how things work, young man. You remain silent and do what you're told. For now, you need to recover because, in four hours, the first of the clans will be arriving for the night, and you cannot be seen.”
Rutejìmo nodded. He struggled to understand the sudden change in the old man's attitude.
“While our guests are here and then until about an hour after midnight, you will gather up the refuse around that way,” Kamanìo gestured to a hill, “and take it to a dump about a mile to the south to burn. You will not be seen and you will make no noise. You will remain hidden from the mind and senses.”
“How—” Rutejìmo stopped when Kamanìo's hand tightened on his shoulder.
“You will remain silent. I will detail a guard to guide you, but she will not touch either the garbage or the body. Those are not her duties.”
Rutejìmo inhaled sharply. He knew that banyosiōu were the ones who dealt with the unclean things in life, but he wasn't expecting it to happen to him.
“The corpse was my daughter's first hound. She died two nights ago from age. She is to be burned to ash, separately from the garbage.” His voice grew tight.
Rutejìmo nodded and remained silent.
“Do you know the way?”
He shook his head.
“Can you read?”
At Rutejìmo's nod, Kamanìo grunted. “I have a book of rituals to perform and a vase for her ashes. There are rites for her body, follow them exactly if you value your life. There are directions for which spices to use and when. Requirements for how much ash must remain behind. When you come back, I will have a blanket and food by the garbage pile. You will remain behind the garbage until the last of the visiting clans have arrived. I will send for you.”
Kamanìo pushed Rutejìmo into the shade of a shelter.
One of the dogs came up with a basket filled with food and two waterskins. Rutejìmo's stomach rumbled at the sight of it.
“Now, remain silent, eat, and sleep. You will be woken.”
Rutejìmo sank down on the ground, struggling to wrap his mind around the sudden change in his life. It was hard to concentrate through his pounding headache. “Great…” he paused and looked into Kamanìo's eyes, wondering if he could ask one question.
The old man sighed and looked away. “Why?” he asked into thin air.
“I may be a fool, but Great Shimusogo Mapábyo has been a joy in the last year.” Kamanìo held up his hands before he continued, “She has brought smiles and laughter to my clan and those we protect around the oasis. And last night, I saw all the laughter gone from her eyes as she regretted leaving you. I may be cursing her to join your path, but I am driven to see her smile once again.”
Kamanìo stepped away. “I am also bound by other obligations not to do this again. Rutejìmo, this is the one and only time you will have solace in this camp without a clan. You have one day exactly—twenty hours—and you are no longer permitted to remain. If you return, I will not see you again and it would be in your best interest that Great Shimusogo Mapábyo speaks for herself with you nothing more than a shadow of the dead barely visible in the corner of my eye.”
Rutejìmo watched the old man stride away. He struggled not only with the desire to say something but also the sadness that welled up. It squeezed his lungs and burned his eyes, but he had no more tears left for his own mistakes.
With a heavy heart, he reached for the food and drink. He had a lot of work to do.