The man gave the door an extra nudge with his foot to assist it as it slammed shut behind him. His shoes were crisp but uncomfortable, and they tapped on the pavement as he sauntered down the steps of his house to his car parked in the driveway. He yawned and folded into the driver’s seat, stowing his bag in the empty passenger seat beside him.
The man had a grim demeanor, though it was difficult to pinpoint just what it was about him that so influenced his effect. His brow was long, though he boasted a full head of hair. He was still young, almost handsome, but the smile-crinkles that framed his eyes did little to dispel the rigidness that characterized the rest of his features.
Traffic already consumed the highway, the man weaving confidently around the other cars. He had to roll up the window because the exhaust from the lulled cars choked him. The music gave way to the morning news. He listened for several moments, then began scrolling through the stations, landing on more shitty music.
The car in front of him stopped. He slammed on the brakes, anticipating the crash that was sure to come. The man’s car halted within a hair’s breadth of the one in front. He turned off the radio.
Consciousness jerked Kavaliro from sleep. He blinked several times, but it made no difference. His breathing was fast, and sweat sheened his wide brow. Wiggling his toes and stretching his body, Kavaliro was relieved to find himself unconstricted by anything at all. He snuggled deeper into the soft ground, the rushes conforming to his body below him and insulating his skin against the soft breeze above him. He was comfortable for a moment, but realized that he couldn’t go back to sleep.
The dream was already fading, but it still left Kavaliro uncomfortable and dissatisfied. The images and sensations were confusing. He shook his head to wring the memory from his mind, then stood and lumbered out of his hovel to piss over the edge of a boulder. He made his way to the small stream and cupped water to his mouth until he wasn’t thirsty.
The sun still slumbered, so Kavaliro returned to his bed to recapture the warmth he’d left there. He ran his hands across his face, down his arms, his belly, his legs. The coarse hair that covered his body didn’t bear any resemblance to the man in a suit with shiny skin and restricted toes.
When the rest of the band woke for the day, they found Kavaliro sitting in the center of camp alone. They went about the business of gathering breakfast, and Kavaliro joined them. The children collected nuts scattered across the ground, then pried them from their cases. The full-grown climbed into the canopy to pluck fruit from the branches.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Amiko asked from the bough of a tree.
“Some,” Kavaliro responded.
“I couldn’t sleep.” Amiko waited for a response.
Kavaliro looked at him blankly, so he grabbed his crotch and wiggled for clarification.
“Again?” Kavaliro said. “When do you ever get rest?”
“Who needs rest when you’ve got warmth?”
“You must be thrice a father, Amiko,” Kavaliro chided.
“None yet. But one may be coming.” Amiko grinned. “Where’s your warmth?”
“My rushes keep me warm.”
When they’d gathered branches and rushes to reinforce their hovels against the growing cold, Kavaliro and Amiko went to the river to splash about. The afternoons were still scorching, and the cool water was precious. Kavaliro decided to tell Amiko about his dream, when he caught sight of his own reflection on the surface of the creek. His eyes were framed by smile crinkles, but the rest of his soft, leathery face was as flat as the surface of the water. Stern, grim.
His face was broken by ripples as Amiko splashed him. Kavaliro looked into Amiko’s laughing face and returned the splash. Amiko was small and agile, his face and demeanor full of warmth. Warmth begets warmth, Kavaliro thought.
At dusk, the bugs emerged, biting and buzzing. The band gathered about the central fire, where the smoke helped keep the bugs at bay. There, Kavaliro shared in the fish that Amiko pulled from the stream. Amiko’s warmth, Knobino, ate with them as well. She was solemn and provided a nice balance to Amiko’s charming but exhausting exuberance. Kavaliro liked her, but he was never quite able to relax when she was around.
Though the sucklings were asleep in their mothers’ arms, the youngsters weren’t yet tired, and they gallivanted around the fire – waving flaming sticks, then abandoning them to tackle and tousle one another. The mothers watched with admiration, only intervening when their young stumbled too close to the fire.
“Listen,” Ceto said, addressing the entire group. The scouts of the day rose.
“The hill band is moving down. They are closer to the river than they should be,” Fortan said.
“Our river,” Saga emphasized.
The warm days of scoping territory and battling for desired home ground were fading. By this time, bands across the land were hunkering down where they resided, preparing for the cold that was quickly approaching. Ceto and his river band were not prepared to confront the hill band.
Once the scouts had their say, talk turned to more mundane matters. Kavaliro relaxed into the murmur of voices, singing crickets, the crackling fire, and the chilling breeze that caused him to scooch closer to Amiko. Though he drifted on the verge of sleep, Kavaliro never quite gave in. He dreaded the wrenching feeling that came with waking up and having to find his hovel with sleep still staining his eyes. When he couldn’t keep awake any longer, Kavaliro stood and turned to Amiko and Knobino.
“Sleep well, tonight. Tomorrow we scout.”
“I’ll be ready,” Amiko promised.
“Rest well,” Knobino said.
Kavaliro left them, and by the time he reached his bed, one foot was already in the Sleepy River.
The man was in his boxers, lounging on the couch in his living room. He was alone. The aroma of coffee wafted from his mug on the side table, but it was still too piping to sip. He dug around in the couch cushions for the remote and used it to turn up the volume so he could hear what the anchors had to say. Troop movement, men dying – nothing he hadn’t heard before. The man turned the television off.
He wandered into the kitchen, then stood there at a loss. Without looking, he knew he didn’t want to eat anything from the fridge or cabinets. Eventually, he resigned himself to saltine crackers and pre-sliced cheese. For lack of anything better to do, he wandered back to the couch and turned on the TV.
Kavaliro sat on a mossy rock, the sunniest spot in the emerging dawn, and let Amiko bring him berries and fresh water. Kavaliro was too drowsy to be his full-self; he didn’t feel like he’d slept. Amiko, on the other hand, was full of life, and he rushed about, preparing for their scouting trip single-handedly.
The two left camp early, before anyone else emerged from their hovels. Kavaliro breathed in deeply and felt, for the first time in a while, the relief associated with solitude and companionship at the same time. Amiko would already have started talking with the freedom of knowing that no extra ears were around to hear, but he stayed quiet for Kavaliro’s sake.
They headed first towards the hills. Leaping over rocks, dodging branches, splashing across creeks, they traveled swiftly. Kavaliro, though, was distracted.
The dreams that had been filling his nights left him uneasy. But more than that, they left him feeling guilty. Guilty? He wasn’t quite sure why.
A branch emerged in front of him. Still barreling ahead, Kavaliro’s head crashed against the bark, and the ground rose to meet him.
The man was not alone. A woman was with him, standing in the doorframe to the kitchen as he tried to appear relaxed on the couch. She was talking, yelling actually, but the man tried so hard not to listen. To quell his shaking hands, he strengthened his grip on the armrest. Discarded office belongings filled the living room, too recently displaced to have found a new home. More alarming to the woman than the office décor was the plane ticket on the coffee table – a solitary, one-way ticket.
“They’re not even drafting, not a draft,” she was saying over and over again. It seemed to be the only thing she knew how to say.
“I won’t wait around until they do,” he blurted, but she was too busy repeating her new mantra to notice.
“They’re not drafting.” She wasn’t even crying.
“You won’t be safe either,” he said, still not getting through. “No discrimination.”
He couldn’t listen anymore. Couldn’t stand it. He grabbed the remote, turned on the TV, and pumped the volume.
The woman let out a choked laugh of disbelief. She stumbled from the doorframe behind him to get in between him and the television. She lunged and grabbed the remote from his hand, turned the TV off, and wrenched the batteries from their socket. He looked up to her face to make eye contact with her for the first time. He broke.
“It’s too late,” he said. And he began to sob.
“Come back,” the woman said.
Or was it Amiko?
Kavaliro groaned and touched his head before opening his eyes. Amiko was staring down at him, but his face was silhouetted against the sun so Kavaliro couldn’t read his expression. Amiko sat on the ground, cross-legged, cradling Kavaliro’s head.
With Amiko’s help, Kavaliro eased himself to sitting. His vision sparkled, and he had to focus to keep from passing out. As soon as he stabilized, Kavaliro took one glance at Amiko, and he began to cry, the tears seeping steadily down his cheeks to plop on his lap.
Amiko averted his gaze.
Thank you,” Kavaliro said.
Their progress through the forest was much slower, and Amiko kept glancing at Kavaliro as if at any moment he may start crying again. The tears were gone, but his chest swirled and clenched beyond his control. Fed up with Amiko’s stares, Kavaliro picked up his pace to leave Amiko trailing behind him.
He blundered blindly ahead, diffusing his frustration by directing his silence towards Amiko. Branches through the trees rustled. Kavaliro halted. Amiko stopped too late, bumping into him. They both hushed.
Subtly, beyond their notice, the low, damp riverlands had climbed into mild dips and swells. They had entered the hills.
Before he could check himself, Kavaliro let out a cry of frustration.
“We crossed the border. We gave them no warning.”
“What will we do?” Amiko said.
Kavaliro and Amiko stood back-to-back, glancing rapidly from one corner of the woods to another. The canopy felt heavy and close, where just moments ago the woods had been expansive. Several moments of tense silence passed. Then, like the breaking of a cloud, they heard whoops and hollers through the trees. Together, without consulting, Amiko and Kavaliro turned away from the calls to dash back in the direction they came from.
Kavaliro breathed sharply in and out as he ran, but somehow the sweet air escaped him, and his breath kept catching in his throat. His head felt lofty. The only thing keeping him grounded was the pain in his skull where he’d hit his head on the branch.
The man’s foot caught on a protruding rock. He tumbled into a free-fall, barely dropping his rifle in time to thrust his arms out in front of him. His palm sunk into a slick, but jagged stone, and after an instant of pause, blood began seeping from the break and pain began seeping up his arm. The man bit his lip to keep from squealing.
He snatched his rifle from the ground and collapsed against a tree, panting, to calm himself. The man shoved his palm against his pant leg to slow the bleeding, but it wasn’t long before the red oozed beyond his fingertips. The shouts through the trees grew louder, but the man couldn’t distinguish his enemies from his companions.
Amiko took hold of Kavaliro’s hand and yanked him to his feet. Kavaliro yelped and withdrew his bleeding hand to cradle it against his chest. Amiko prodded him until they both took off through the trees once again.
“We must let them know. Give them time to prepare,” Amiko said.
He glanced behind them. The woods appeared empty. But their pursuers still reveled in the thrill of the chase, chittering and laughing through the trees. Their voices were growing louder.
“How? We won’t make it,” Kavaliro said.
Amiko loped along, breathing heavily, but moving with ease.
“We can’t outrun them,” Kavaliro told him. “I can’t.”
Amiko glanced at him, eyebrows raised. Then he nodded.
The pair halted, their feet skidding in the mud. Kavaliro pressed his back up against the rough bark of a tree, and Amiko followed suit. They flanked a small gap in the trees, invisible to the unsuspecting.
The pair of scouts that bounded into the clearing held their heads high, their gaze directed forward, their teeth bared in wicked grins. They chattered incessantly, and though the guttural rasps meant nothing to Kavaliro, they instilled him with panic. The scouts passed Kavaliro’s tree. With their backs exposed, he hollered and leapt from his vantage point to pounce on the nearest one.
Surprise gave Kavaliro an advantage that his size and strength did not. Before the Hill scout could react, Kavaliro wrapped his arms and legs around the scout’s eyes and arms. Kavaliro constricted with all his might. The scout staggered but didn’t topple. From his perch, Kavaliro spied the dumbfounded look on the second scout’s face, but it disappeared, replaced by shock, as Amiko pounced as well.
The man struggled to maintain his grasp on the enemy soldier. He whipped his head about, looking for his rifle, but it was gone. The tousle took the form of an embrace that could almost be considered tender – but it was all blood and sweat and grime. The blood from the man’s palm leaked into his enemy’s eyes. Disoriented, the soldier, with the man still on his back, tumbled forward into the dirt.
The man took the opportunity to shove his knee into the soldier’s back and wrap his fingers around his throat. He wasn’t met with a struggle or protest. Confused, he released his grip.
Kavaliro climbed off the scout and peered around toward its head, where a dark pool already formed. A small boulder lay next to where he’d fallen – a smear marking where it had met the scout’s head. He was unconscious.
Amiko approached Kavaliro, leaving behind a body, the head bashed in. He carried a rock the size of a fist. Drops of blood slipped from the rock to be swallowed in the dust of the forest floor. He held out the rock for Kavaliro to take.
“End it,” he said.
“Why?” Kavaliro said. He shuddered.
“Us or them.”
Kavaliro received the rock reluctantly, refusing to make eye contact with Amiko. He stood above the prone figure of the scout, hesitating with the hope that Amiko would wrench the rock from his hand and do what Kavaliro could not. When Amiko made no move, Kavaliro grasped for resolve, then fell to his knees beside the scout’s head. He closed his eyes and felt the rock in his hand wallop the head until the skull cracked.
When he rose, Kavaliro turned to Amiko and let his gaze rest on his friend’s chest, which was straight and composed. It rose and fell in a slow, even cycle.
“We must get home. Tell them,” Amiko said.
“Tell them what?” Kavaliro asked. He glanced up to Amiko’s face, then let his gaze fall again.
“Those were scouts. We crossed the border to their land.” Kavaliro insisted.
They want our blood.” Amiko scowled at him and started walking away.
Kavaliro grabbed Amiko’s wrist and stood his ground, wheeling Amiko around to face him.
“We don’t know. We cannot tell them. It does not bode well,” Kavaliro said.
Amiko shook his grip and continued walking.
“Coward,” he spat.
“Listen to me,” Kavaliro said. But he could not vocalize what he felt. Despair took hold, and the only thing that would keep it at bay was preventing Amiko from leaving him, from returning home. Several moments passed without word, and Amiko stared at him intently. Amiko turned away once more.
Kavaliro grasped after him, but Amiko pushed him away, and he fell to the ground. When he stood up, Kavaliro had a rock in hand. He lunged after Amiko, covering lost ground. He raised the rock high above his head. He brought it down. It grazed Amiko’s temple. Amiko whipped around to face him. Kavaliro swung, this time from the side. The rock stopped with a dull thud at Amiko’s ear, and his eyes rolled upward into his head.
A cloud of dust rose as Amiko’s body sprawled onto the ground with a thump. Without knowing what he was doing, Kavaliro dropped the rock and knelt to cradle Amiko’s head. He rocked back and forth. Breaths of air came to him sporadically. Lifting Amiko’s eyelids, he was relieved to see the eyes twitching. Kavaliro rubbed Amiko’s head, cooing and whispering intelligibly. When he inspected the eyes again, they were still.
Kavaliro could not go back, instead he continued forward. The Hill camp was in sight when he decided that he could not run anymore. He smelled the wafting stench of the refuse pits on the outskirts of the camp before he spied the first of the camouflaged hovels through the branches. The smell of shit shuddered through him – cloying already desperate breaths – and his knees wobbled and locked. He stumbled.
Kavaliro wretched in a spurt of coughing. He heaved until nothing came out.
The man shook with a chill that only he felt.
Kavaliro shook with a chill that only he felt. He struggled to push the man from his mind, for why had he dispatched Amiko, sacrificed his friend, his companion, if not to drive that man and his morals and his war from existence.
I am not that man, he thought. I will not be that man in this life, nor even the next. But Kavaliro knew that he was part of the man – a part that drifted forward through the days and the nights. And the man was part of him. Kavaliro wanted to die.
He stood and scrabbled forward, clearing the last stretch of underbrush before bursting into the glade of the Hill camp. With a single guttural and strangled shout, hundreds of enemy heads turned their attention towards his lone confidence. Their silence was suffocating.
One warrior measuredly approached Kavaliro, while the rest lost interest and continued to rush about in preparation. Preparation for what? The Hill warrior’s bulk lunged forward. Kavaliro wanted to live. He could tell the band that Amiko drowned, was killed by an enemy; they would believe him. He wanted to live. He didn’t care if the man lived with him.
The warrior raised a spiked tool above his head – a tool of a kind that Kavaliro had never seen before – and it blotted out the sun. Kavaliro’s screech caught silently in his throat, only a sharp hiss of air escaping.