When being reborn into the clan, the first words are typically the most precious.
— Kyōti proverb
Rutejìmo walked along the ridge of a dune, the burning wind buffeting his skin. His bare feet left a ragged trail behind him, his footsteps marking the long winding trail stretching miles behind him.
He didn't look back. It didn't matter where he came from or the path he took. He started that morning by walking toward the sun, pacing in silence. He had no direction other than to follow the burning orb across the sky. When Tachìra reached his apex, Rutejìmo stopped and held his face and arms to the sun spirit until he felt the heat moving away from his upturned gaze. Now, hours later, he returned to where he started.
Rutejìmo walked naked. He knew it was part of the purification ritual, but there was a stark difference between knowing he would trek with nothing to protect him and the actual struggle to keep walking when there was nothing to shield him from the heat of Tachìra or the grit of the desert. He trembled with his effort, his body struggling without water or food for an entire day. He tried to lick his lips, but they were as dry as the rock that seared his bare feet.
He reached a large rock and leaned against it. His hand trembled violently, and he slipped on the sweat that soaked his palm. He lost his balance and thudded painfully against a sharp edge. The burn on his dark skin sent sparks of pain along his nerves.
Panting, he remained in place for a few seconds and wished he had landed in shade. Walking naked in the sun was agony and every inch of his skin felt raw and seared. The only place that wasn't burned was a black tattoo of a dépa on his left shoulder.
He found his second wind and pushed himself away. Waiting in the sun would only prolong his agony.
To his surprise, the burn hurt—but not as much as he thought it would after almost twelve solid hours with only a tattoo to protect him. Something, a sense of peace or just the realization that he was about to rejoin his clan, pushed back the agony.
Barely standing, he kept his eyes focused on the cliff entrance of Shimusogo Valley. He could almost count the steps remaining until he was once again alive.
No one would meet him outside; he knew where to go. They would be waiting at the shrine to welcome him back. It would be the first time in a year that he would be allowed to speak again.
He wasn't sure he had the courage to speak again.
For a year now, he had worked in near silence. The cloak of being there and not there had grown comfortable around him. It was a hard life, filled with helpless pain. Both he and Mapábyo struggled with their loss and with Gemènyo's death. Still, the months had trudged by and the sharp edge of grief had faded.
Rutejìmo smiled to himself and wiped the sand from his face. There was no sweat left to prickle his skin. He wasn't even sure if he could make a noise with his dry throat, he didn't dare try. The purification ritual was made in silence.
Lifting his gaze up, he watched the red crescent of the sun burn along the cliffs of the valley. It was the last thin line before he rejoined the living. With a sad smile, he held his breath and watched it slip out of sight with the briefest of green flashes.
The power of Tachìra faded and he let out his shuddering breath. The darkness brought the full weight of his mortality and weakness to bear. At the same time, he could be seen again. He wanted to cry and scream and sob. The urge to drop to his knees and stop moving rose up, but he had a quarter mile left to walk before he reached home.
Looking back up, he caught movement. On either side of the valley, two flames circled around the back areas and came around. Despite being on opposite sides of the cliffs that lined the valley, they ran in almost perfect unison. Plumes of sand rose behind the two translucent dépa. They were running in opposite directions, but he knew they would come back toward him. It was Desòchu and Chimípu and they were finally coming for him.
A twisting in his stomach caused him to falter. He watched the two warriors circle around the valley, glowing with an aura of flame and sunlight. A year ago, both had beat him nearly into unconsciousness and left him to die. But they were also the ones that stealthily gave a helping hand when he needed it, or fed him when Mapábyo couldn't help him. He couldn't touch or talk to them, but they were there, guarding and protecting him as one of the clan. And being present when the grief took him.
Rutejìmo forced himself forward. The urge to turn and run rose up, almost choking him with the desperation of flight. This close to the valley, the home of Shimusògo, he could use his powers. He wouldn't, knowing it would be less than a minute before they caught up to him. Not to mention, his powers would wane once he reached a league from the shrine, but the two warriors could retain their speed all night long.
He felt the power from their approach, a tickling along his senses and a fluttering in his heart. It was comforting and terrifying at the same time.
With a blast of air, Desòchu and Chimípu came to a stop on either side of him. Both of their bodies burned with golden flames, and feathers danced along their skin.
Rutejìmo hesitated, unsure of what to do.
Chimípu smiled at him and turned around so she was walking next to him.
On his left, his older brother did the same. His bola thumped against his thigh from the movement.
Rutejìmo trembled between the two of them. He was naked and vulnerable. His trek across the desert left him shaking and barely able to stand. Somehow, he knew they would catch him if he fell, but he was determined to finish the walk on his own.
Together, they entered the valley. It was quiet, almost painfully so. The caves were dark, and the communal fires were banked. He looked up at the caves hoping to see someone—there was no one to see. For the first time in his life, the valley was dark.
The only light came from the far end of the valley. The shrine glowed with a hundred candles. Someone had set up torches on both sides of the path leading to the shrine. At the sight of it, he sobbed and stumbled.
Chimípu reached out for him but didn't grab him.
He glanced up to see concern in her eyes and a silent question. With a nod, he forced his aching feet down the path. The hard-packed ground and rock scraped along his abused soles, but he would make the final steps.
A day walking naked in the sand was easy compared to the simple, smooth path leading up to the shrine. He could handle it, yet as he approached he felt the pressure of attention crushing him. It was a weight that he wasn't sure he could bear. Through the opening, he spotted every adult in the clan waiting for him with their backs to him. At the far end, sitting underneath the grand statue of Shimusògo, his grandmother stared at the ground. In front of her were the two bowls that would determine his fate.
He stopped at the threshold, a moment of indecision and fear. While no one looked at him, he could feel them straining to listening. He didn't know what to expect anymore.
He scanned the backs of friends and family. They supported him in the last year: meals set outside of the cave, impromptu poetry and stories just when he lost all faith, and even sitting out in the dark to talk to the night when he happened to be nearby.
For years, he never realized how much everyone cared for him. The year of being ostracized had drawn him closer to the clan than ten years of running as a courier.
He focused on Mapábyo. Her body shifted to the side and he could see that she wanted to turn around. Flashes of her profile came into his view when she started but then forced herself to look toward the front. Her black skin shimmered in the light, reflecting light from her white dress trimmed with orange. It was her special outfit, one that she modeled for him just the night before.
Taking a deep breath, Rutejìmo stepped over the threshold of the shrine. Crossing that simple stone step felt like one world had just peeled away from him and he was entering a new one.
A shiver coursed through the room. Ahead of him, Tejíko lifted her head and focused on him for the first time in a year. “I see you, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.” Mapábyo's private words had become the words to greet the dead among the Shimusògo.
He trembled, fixed to the door frame.
The rest of the clan finally turned and looked at him.
He fought the sob that rose in his throat when he saw the smiling faces.
Tears ran down Mapábyo's face as she smiled. She wrung her hands together for a long moment before lifting her gaze to him. His heart almost stopped at the sight of the shimmering in her eyes.
Rutejìmo knew he needed to say something. It wasn't part of the ritual—still he felt in his gut it was right. It was the nature of being born once again into the clan. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward and down the narrow gap between people. He thought about his words, playing them endlessly in his head. He wanted to speak right away even though he knew he couldn't. He found solace by staring at the statue of Shimusògo. It gave him strength imagining the clan spirit stood next to him.
As he passed Mapábyo, he reached out and took her hand.
Mapábyo inhaled sharply and tried to pull away.
He caught her wrist.
Next to her, Hyonèku snorted with a smirk.
Kiríshi looked at him with confusion.
Mapábyo leaned over. “Jìmo,” she whispered, “you're supposed to say something to everyone.”
He smiled and tugged her with him, nodding his head toward the front of the shrine.
She followed, her bare feet scuffing on the rock. He stood in front of Tejíko and turned so Mapábyo and he were facing together, with Tejíko on one side and the clan on the other.
Taking a deep breath, Rutejìmo opened his mouth, but his throat froze.
Mapábyo squeezed his hands, the tears streaming down her face.
“Ma… Mapábyo. Great Shimusogo Mapábyo….” Every word, spoken as loud as he could, came out hoarse and broken. “Will you m-marry me?”
From the right, he heard a burst of noise, but Kiríshi's and Desòchu's expletive carried over everyone else. “Damn the sands!”
Hyonèku laughed and clapped. “Finally!”
Rutejìmo stared at Mapábyo, struggling with the words. He had spent months practicing them in the desert, but when it came to saying them, he could barely force the words out. He managed to get out only a few syllables before panic set in and he choked.
Mapábyo blinked through her tears and then stepped closer. As she did, she pulled her hands from his and rested them on his hips. “Y-Yes,” she whispered.
He smiled and placed his own, scarred palms on her hips.
Tejíko stood up with a groan. “Boy,” she said in a sharp tone. Her long braid swung free and the heavy ring at the end thudded against the ground. “You always have to do things your own way, don't you?”
Rutejìmo blushed and ducked his head. “Sorry, Great Shimusogo Tejíko. B-But,” he found it easier to speak, “I will only get to say my first words twice, once when I was a babe and now. She's the most important… she is my life now.”
Tejíko's scowl sent a shiver of fear coursing down his spine.
Rutejìmo gulped and stared at his grandmother. “Did I… do—”
She interrupted him by raising her hands. “Silence!”
The whispers that had started when he first spoke ended in a flash.
“Since my grandson can't be properly humble with his first words, we'll deal with the second order of business. Shall we let these two marry?”
When he heard a bowl scraping on the floor, he glanced down. Tejíko pushed the black bowl between Mapábyo and himself, centering it right at their feet. If someone agreed, they would throw one or more of their voting stones into the bowl.
He glanced at the red one, the one someone would throw a stone into if they disagreed.
Tejíko chuckled and stepped on the edge of the bowl. It flipped over. The sound of it hitting the ground sent a bolt of surprise through Rutejìmo. He had never seen anyone flip it over.
The first stone rang out at his feet.
Rutejìmo jumped at the sound and looked at Desòchu who held up his hands. Behind him, Hyonèku, Kiríshi, and Chimípu were all lining up with their hands over their stones.
Tension twisting his back, he glanced down. Instead of seeing Chimípu's normal voting stone, it was one of his black rocks with the white ridges. He threw them off the cliff months ago and assumed they were lost.
A second stone landed in the bowl, also his.
In a slow rhythm, more of his rocks were tossed into the bowl until there were nine rolling at the bottom. No one else voted, no one else spoke about his request.
“Rutejìmo?” whispered Mapábyo. She pulled her hands free and dug into her pocket. With a grin of her own, she held up her hand and spread open her fingers. With a sigh, she let it slip from her fingers and it plummeted down into the bowl.
He had one stone for every year since he became a man in his clan. A year ago, he pulled out the tenth rock from underneath his bed and added it to his bag. A year later, he still had ten, but it felt like a lifetime had passed for him.
He gave up a year of his life, but somehow, he was happier than he had ever been.
When the final stone struck the bowl, he leaned over and kissed Mapábyo.