How do you deal with the unseen? Treat them as if they weren’t there and let them see your answer.
— Chyobizo Nichikōse, The Lost
Sweat pouring down his back, Rutejìmo swung the pickax over his head. He swung it and drove it into the ground. A small chunk of earth flew up, bouncing twice before rolling away. He grunted and swung the ax up and over again. He couldn’t stop, despite the protest of his muscles and the ache in his back. As soon as it hit, he yanked it back and swung again.
He had been working hard since early morning. Even before the other clans had left for their travels, he spent the time cleaning out the garbage pits and scraping out the cleaning pots behind a dune. When it was safe to be seen again, he hammered, lugged, and dragged whatever was placed in front of him. He ate when he could, stealing scraps off plates while scraping them into the garbage or grabbing a gulp of water from the bottom of a bucket.
No one spoke to him or even looked at him. Instead, they pointedly set down whatever tool he needed when he walked nearby. He worked numbly, bound by the generosity they were giving him but also by the realization that he couldn’t return to his old life.
He continued to dig while watching the shadows grow shorter. With every swing of the pick ax, he planned his route: back along the road and circle around the oases that threatened him. If the Tijikóse allowed it, he would grab two more water skins, but he wasn’t sure if that would be enough. It was a long run back to Wamifuko City and he might never meet up with Mapábyo again.
Along the outer edge of the oasis, he spotted two teenagers carrying his pack. They said nothing to each other or even looked in his direction. Instead, they left the pack for him and continued along their way. One of the clan dogs dragged a large water skin over, dropped it on the pile, and then trotted away.
The stack of supplies pointedly reminded him that he was running out of time. Tearing his attention away from it, he bore down on the pick and continued to dig out the hole. If he had to leave, he would thank them properly with silent labor. He dug faster, feeling the seconds sliding away by the shortening shadows. Blisters broke along his palms but the pain only drove him to move faster.
He finished just as the sun reached its apex. Panting for breath, he wiped the sweat from his brow and peered around for whatever would go into the hole. Seeing nothing, he dragged the pick ax over to a shed that they used to store tools and set it down.
He slipped around the shed and trudged along the outer perimeter of the campground. His breath came in ragged gasps. He felt like a ghost flitting from shadow to shadow, unheard and unseen.
The Tifukòmi were generous: three skins of water, enough food for two days, fresh supplies, bandages, twisted knots of rofōshi roots for pain, and another change of plain clothes. He secured everything into the two packs before swinging the straps over his shoulders. It weighed more than usual, but he had a long run ahead of him.
Rutejìmo resisted the urge to take one last look at the camp. They had given him enough: shelter for the night, water, and lessons on what his new life would be like.
Taking a deep breath, he walked away from the camp. The muscles of his arms and legs ached with every step, but most of the discomfort came from his work around the campsite instead of his injuries. He pushed himself to jog, working out his body until his movements grew smoother and more familiar. He could barely feel the limp that slowed him down before.
He feared going faster, in case Shimusògo had somehow abandoned him in the night. His feet pounded against the ground in steady, slow beats. It didn’t take long before the heat began to bear down on him and the slowness plucked at his mind.
Rutejìmo was a runner, and he needed speed. Grunting, he pushed himself to accelerate.
When Shimusògo appeared, he let out a sob. He sank into the familiar chase after the tiny speckled bird racing before him. The world blurred around him and he found comfort in his speed. As long as his spirit came to him, he could survive the year.
He cried out in joy, thankful Shimusògo was still there, and threw himself into running. He needed to find Mapábyo.