You change in an instant. You grow over time.
She was back a month later, but only for a week. In that time, Rutejìmo's despair had eroded under Chimípu's and Pidòhu's tactful companionship. But as much as he appreciated his friends' company, he missed Mapábyo more than he thought possible. He couldn't even consider leaving her anymore and struggled with the guilt of making the decision in the first place.
The night after she returned, she was invited to her parent's cave for dinner. Rutejìmo joined her, since his invitation was tactfully given. He remained silent as the dead and tried to stay out of all of their way to simply enjoy their presence.
“I see you,” whispered Mapábyo, her voice too low to be heard by the others in the main room of Hyonèku's and Kiríshi's cave. Her shirt, a ruffled orange with the laces parted enough for him to see the tail of the tattoo on her breast.
Mapábyo came out of the eating area with a platter of food.
Stepping to the side, Rutejìmo pressed his back against the stone opening. A thrill coursed through his veins. He slipped further into the kitchen so she could finish bringing dessert out to the others.
Mapábyo set down the tray, and her left hand automatically went to her belly.
Rutejìmo's heart beat faster in his chest, and he smiled broadly. Mapábyo's monthly cycle was two months late, and already the signs of pregnancy were beginning to show, though only for those who knew to look. He was excited and terrified at the same time. Rutejìmo was about to be a father. The child would be born around the same time he would be allowed to rejoin the clan. Neither he nor Mapábyo knew how the news would be taken, so they decided to keep it quiet as long as possible.
Kiríshi reached over to start serving dessert. She bumped against Mapábyo's elbow.
Mapábyo jerked and pulled her hand away from her belly and grabbed a fork. She smiled sheepishly.
The central area had been cleared out for a large table. There were five chairs set out, but six plates on the table. Gemènyo and Faríhyo sat at one end; Hyonèku and his wife sat at the other. In the center was Mapábyo's spot across from an empty spot for Rutejìmo, though no one ever admitted verbally to his position.
The clan gave him a short respite by giving him no new tasks for a few days, but he continued to perform the duties that he already had. Looking around, he spotted a bucket with the remains of dinner. He picked it up and headed outside to the garbage heap.
He jogged to the entrance of the valley while enjoying the cool air. There, a small pile of refuse and inedible food gathered for the night; he would deal with it in the morning.
He stopped to set down the bucket next to the pile. A breeze kicked up around him, sending sand cascading over his feet. He kicked it off and turned back to the valley, his home.
The two banners to Shimusògo fluttered in the wind, the heavy cloth rippling in the dark. The names glowed brightly from magical thread that took almost two years to adapt to the resonance of the valley before it could be brought home. From a distance, it looked like the words were burning.
Above the sixty-foot banners was the lookout perch. At night, the netting protecting the sheer drop was invisible, but he could see the short metal rods sticking out of the cliff holding it in place.
At the edge of the lookout stood Kiramíro, the eldest of the clan warriors. Next to her was the newest, the teenage girl who Rutejìmo chased off the shrine a few months ago. They were too far away for Rutejìmo to hear, but he could see Kiramíro miming cutting someone's throat.
He shuddered at the casual violence and headed back into the valley. His bare feet echoed loudly in the quiet. He followed the flickering lights and headed up the trail leading back to Hyonèku's cave.
Desòchu slammed him against the wall, his rough hands punching Rutejìmo right below the ribs. He brought his knee up to slam it into Rutejìmo's groin.
Rutejìmo tried to scream out, but the impact against the stone drove the air out of his lungs. The pain ripping through his nerves caused lights to explode across his vision. He gripped Desòchu's wrists, but the tense muscles were too strong for him to push Desòchu away.
“I will kill you, corpse.” Desòchu's alcoholic breath washed against Rutejìmo's face. His hands ground into Rutejìmo's chest, the magic rippling off his body in waves of heat and light.
Struggling to breathe, Rutejìmo shook his head.
“You are dead to me, but you continue to be an irritation.” Desòchu's hands slid up to Rutejìmo's neck. “You are a poison, a rot. You are sickness and no one else sees it.”
Rutejìmo tried to push him away, but couldn't stop his brother.
Desòchu gripped Rutejìmo's neck, squeezing tightly. “You were supposed to take the easy way out, the way you always do. Or sit there and sob like a worm. But you keep coming back, no matter—”
Gemènyo cleared his throat. A breeze washed over Rutejìmo, kicking up a few grains of sand to pepper his legs.
Desòchu released Rutejìmo and stepped back. His eyes slid away from Rutejìmo to focus on Gemènyo and Kiríshi. A low growl rumbled in his chest.
The two adults were standing next to each other, their clothes fluttering with wind and Kiríshi's settling into place.
“What are you doing here?” snapped Desòchu.
“Oh, just enjoying a little stroll with my wife. You know what—”
Desòchu's face purpled. “Kiríshi isn't your wife!”
Gemènyo turned to Kiríshi with mock surprise on his face. “You aren't!?”
“No, I'm not.” Kiríshi rolled her eyes and smirked. Under her words, there was a hardness that Rutejìmo had never heard before.
“Want to be?”
“With your pipe?” Kiríshi made a disgusted look. “I'd rather sleep in the garbage. I still don't know how Ríhyo can stand you.”
Gemènyo stepped back, his hand on his chest and a dramatic look of horror on his face. “Oh, Great Shimusogo Kiríshi, you wound me!”
“No,” she said, “your wife is going to wound you if you make that offer again.”
Desòchu snarled. “Stop it! Stop joking!”
Kiríshi turned on Desòchu and gave him an innocent smile. “Stop what, Great Shimusogo Desòchu?”
“Stop protecting him!”
“Gemènyo? He doesn't—” Kiríshi said tensely, the muscles in her neck tightening.
“You know who!” Desòchu's bellow echoed against the stone walls. The echoes reflected down the valley, breaking the silence.
Kiríshi stood up straight, her face turning hard for a moment. “I'm doing what's right.”
Desòchu stepped up to her, his body igniting with flames. “No, you aren't. He's dead! Dead to you, dead to me, dead to everyone!”
She didn't flinch. Instead, she stepped up to him until the flames licked her skin and her hair began to curl. “That doesn't mean we forget him.”
“That isn't the Shimusogo Way!”
“Yes,” Kiríshi snapped, “it is.”
She pulled her hands back and slammed them against Desòchu's chest. The impact shot through the air, but Desòchu didn't move. She pulled back and did it again, this time pushing him back an inch. “This is our way because we say it is.”
Hyonèku, Faríhyo and Mapábyo raced up. The currents of air spiraled around everyone's feet, kicking up dust devils.
Desòchu shook his head and stepped back. “No, it isn't. He is corrupting us, even… from death!” He pointed at Mapábyo, his finger shaking. “You've seen what she's doing because of him. She wore that tooth around her neck, just like him. She's marked her body like that horse bitch. Everything he touched is corrupted!”
“Maybe,” said Hyonèku, “that is just our way now?”
“How can you say that? It's your daughter!”
Hyonèku stepped forward, his bare feet crunching on the piled sand. “Yes, she,” he said the word sharply, “is my daughter and the most precious thing in my world. That tooth is now her stone, as you requested. The tattoo? Well,” he shrugged, “I don't like it, but it means something to her.”
Kiríshi joined her husband, sliding her hand around his waist. “Tejíko didn't seem to mind it when she found out.”
“It isn't the Shimusogo Way!”
“Maybe the way is changing?” asked Kiríshi. “Nothing stays the same.”
Chimípu's footsteps filled in the space. She didn't run or even jog, but walked down the path.
The others stepped aside.
She came to a stop in front of Desòchu.
Desòchu glared at the other warrior and his flames flared higher. “And you are the worst of them. You and Pidòhu started all of this.”
Chimípu's eyes glittered in the flames. “Started what, Great Shimusogo Desòchu?”
“Yes, he is. And there isn't a day that passes that I don't think about it.”
“Of course not, nothing changed for you. You treat him as if he's alive and still part of this clan. He isn't anymore.”
“He's been dead to you for many years now, Desòchu. That didn't just start because of a mistake.”
Desòchu's teeth ground together before he spoke. “He's a fool.”
“He's our clan.”
“He is weak.”
“And we still love him. He may be dead, but there will always be a place here for him. He tried to be your brother for so many years but you stopped being his a long time ago.”
“And you took my place, just like that?”
“Yes,” Chimípu said with a smile and a cock of her head. “It may not be the smartest thing to do, but I believe in him. Ever since that day when he stood up and asked for an end to the violence. When he came back and bared his throat to me. When he told me to leave him to chase after Pidòhu, knowing that he risked his own life to remain in the dark. This,” she finally moved with a single step forward, “is the man your brother became. He wasn't given our gifts, and he will never be the fastest or strongest. He isn't even the smartest or most observant. But when you pay attention, he has done something remarkable: he never gave up, and he never stopped trying. We have never struggled as much as him, but he has never, ever given up.”
Desòchu's flames flickered before he frowned. He started to say something but Chimípu continued.
“Even in death, he works hard and without question. He stands up, because it is the only thing he can do. He runs forward because it is what we do. We run. We run even when we hurt and bleed. We run through the tears and agony and sorrow. Desòchu, this is the Shimusogo Way. This is what we've become. It isn't corruption or wrong, it is just the way it is. He is dead, but we won't stop loving him.”
Desòchu glared at the others. “Do the rest of you feel that way?”
Kiríshi, Faríhyo, Mapábyo, and Gemènyo nodded.
Hyonèku cleared his throat. “Actually, I'm kind of pissed at him.”
Rutejìmo jerked, for a brief moment he had forgotten he was there, and looked at Hyonèku.
A frown furrowed across Chimípu's brow. She turned to look at him.
Hyonèku shrugged. “I kind of wish he wasn't dead.”
“Why?” snarled Desòchu.
A smile crossed Hyonèku's face. “Because I'd probably kill him for getting my daughter pregnant.”
Rutejìmo blanched and a shiver of icy liquid ran down his spine. Both he and Mapábyo were afraid of her father's response to her being pregnant. Rutejìmo spent his days imagining all the horrors that Hyonèku could do when Rutejìmo couldn't call out for help.
Mapábyo blushed hotly and ducked her head. She stepped back and slid her hand away from her belly.
Kiríshi rolled her eyes and smacked Hyonèku. The blow staggered him backwards. When he stepped back, she beat him with her palm until he backpedaled out of reach.
“Well,” Hyonèku said while defending himself from her, “it's true.” He backed away from his wife and up toward his cave. “Sand-cursed ghost giving my girl a child. He deserves to be dead right now.” He was almost flippant, but the tone didn't stop Rutejìmo's sudden struggle to breathe.
“I think enough has been said,” said Tejíko. She came out of the darkness, her bare feet scuffing on the ground. She wore a ground-length sleeping gown with her bare feet barely visible underneath the white fabric. Her voice was low and cracked with age, yet brimming with power.
Everyone jumped at her words and presence. Hyonèku froze in mid-step and turned around, his cheeks red.
“Your yelling is waking up the valley. Some of us are old and like to sleep through the night.”
Everyone, including Rutejìmo, bowed.
“Yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.” Rutejìmo did not join into the chorus of responses.
The elder stood up straight. With a groan, she held her palm against her back. “Now, go back to your homes. Finish your dinner, but let the dead sleep tonight. We don't need to bring up their memories when we should be celebrating.”
Desòchu turned away, taking a step toward Rutejìmo. He stared over Rutejìmo's shoulder and whispered loudly. “If you make a single noise, I will make sure your corpse bleaches in the sun.”
It was a grievous offense, to acknowledge his presence. Rutejìmo looked around at the uncomfortable faces and then to his brother's furious expression. He nodded, because it was the only thing he could do.
Wind blew away from Rutejìmo, the streak of Desòchu's flames disappearing through the entrance of the valley and, no doubt, out into the sands. The others returned to their homes.
For a moment, he thought he was alone.
“Even in death, you continue to walk your own path, don't you, boy?” Tejíko stood looking up at the sky. There were tears in her eyes, and she looked far older than her years.
Then she walked back to her home, leaving Rutejìmo in darkness.