Human agency is one of the great mysteries of existence - as the Mysteries tell us in this short story set in an ancient Amazonian tribe.
I always knew how I was going to die. It was written on my skin from the day I was born.
In the deepest recesses of the Amazon lived the ancient tribe of Katoha, that I was born into.
We were a free people – and as tightknit as they come.
We roamed the jungles, cut trees, built huts, swam in the rivers, hunted, danced, prayed, and lived as one with Mother Nature – we called her Ulla. It all seemed idyllic, but as the saying goes, there’s no rose without thorns.
You see, we have dark secret that everyone pretends to ignore. Every year the rains would flood our huts and we had to go higher upstream to avoid them.
It wasn’t so much the waters that were a problem as the ravenous beasts that lurked beneath them.
The caimans were the least of our worries, either.
It was the Orkah – literally bringers of death.
Many even dread to say their name – evil fiends that descend through lightning and into the flooding banks. They were like humans but they were known to shapeshift into jaguars.
And when they did, there was no mistaking it. Their eyes glared red like embers of coal, and every spot on them came alive at night.
They were majestic, alright, but they came for blood and everyone knew it. For a full month, terror filled the jungles more than the waters – all would be ghost-quiet at sundown and the monsters would come up out of the waters.
Year after year during this period, people died in large numbers – the curse was in full bloom and it continued to tear us apart.
But one day, the elders and shamans had enough. They gathered centuries ago to make invocations to the gods, who gifted our forefathers with a sacred object to contain the havoc.
Except no one knew how to summon its hidden powers.
Until one evening, the lots fell in our favor.
My grandmother, a revered tribal chief, has a vision during one of her shamanic rituals in which she discovers a cryptic message by gazing into the sacred object and interprets the mysteries, as the locals came to call them. It was common knowledge around our house how the whole story transpired. I have heard it quite a few times myself.
It was, I am told, the day of her final rites, the coronation, during which she fell into a trance after taking a drink from the sacred brew for the occasion.
The story goes that she seized for a minute and became possessed by the gods! Glassy-eyed and staring dreamily into the canopies, she uttered the following ode.
The oracles were set in stone from olden times. The sires carved for us this grandest epic, this most sacred Kyrim. Now, hear ye, the interpretation, for I shall speak it only once!
O hear ye, behold
Mysteries of old
Runes and signs
Ye know well
Of the accursed tale
Of men with the mark
Omens of dark
When thou seest the scythe
Then shall travails cease
The mark shan’t lie
Its bearer will die
Orkah lie in wait
Sealed is his fate
Lest he rise
Ere it’s too late
Gore, gore, gore!
Orkah, no more
The threads are spun
Ye, evil comes undone
Brave young soul
Death be his dole
Though many a trial
Cometh his way
All will fall
Under his sway
Yea, he lacketh
Prowess or power
Only may he conquer
If he shan’t cower
I grew up hearing this story for as long as I can remember. And for the longest time, I was certain I would die one day at the hands of an Orkah in the most gruesome fashion – in its animal form.
Why? The prominent mark I had on my forehead. Everyone who saw me flinched – and they weren’t shy about making it known. The large ‘incisor’ was a surefire sign that I would meet my end at the middle of the monsoon, probably on the riverbed.
I can’t count the nights I was jerked awake, drenched in sweat, from the image of bright red eyes glinting unrelentingly at me. I would feel relieved that it had been a harrowing nightmare, only to realize it won’t be for long.
The year my grandma died, I made peace with myself that this was it. I hid one night into her chamber and stole the Kyrim from under the chest by her bed (which we believed her soul was still resting in).
It was raining and pitch black – nothing. The moon barely squinted from behind the overcast night sky, giving off a faint grey hue. Carrying a torch isn’t a good idea either – Why make it easy for them to find me? I thought. Only the Kyrim was glittering in total darkness.
Part of me wanted to die and be with my grandma. I thought about her for a second and my resolve to expire grew even more. I could feel pain tinged with adventure – after all, this was the final chapter, so I might make it well worth the wait.
My thoughts came to an abrupt halt as I was suddenly made aware of my surroundings. I sensed the freezing cold water go up to knee level as I ran deeper into the woods, away from home, wandering cluelessly in the middle of the night.
It slowly begun to dawn on me what I was getting myself into. It’s never what you expect it to be. Increasingly, it became painfully obvious that there was no going back now.
Holding fast the Kyrim, I shouted the first thing that came to my mind – Reveal thyself! I heard myself saying with lesser authority than I had conjured in my head.
Then it came! Slowly but surely. A giant of a wildcat, eyes afire and spots alight! It faintly bare its teeth and came my way, shoulders like boulders, rumbling against its looming frame. Its riveting eyes stunned me beyond recollection. I was in a frenzied daze, staring right into my death.
Heart racing and mind throbbing, I could vaguely form a coherent thought. Every ounce of cerebral effort was rendered oblivious by the phantom easing its way to me.
I could hear it up close. Its mouth parted, emitting the foulest stench that made me want to wretch.
Deep growls made the deafening chirps sound like silence, betraying notes of appetence. "One bite to the neck and put me out of my misery" I yearned inside.
Surely the bitterness of death is past?
In the throes of the undergrowth I helplessly scratched the earth, trying to drag myself away.
Downfall and comeuppance, demise and misery.
The days are numbered, and the night is young.
We are all beholden to the dictates of the Fates.
It is written in the stars.
I kept saying this mantra over and over, as if it would become false for lack of repetition.
The image of my grandma creeped into my mind again, I could feel her essence around me – her warmth, as she leaned into my ears and whispered to me.
Soon it became an echo, growing louder and louder as if the entire forest was shouting it.
The words leaped, as it were, into my forehead. I felt energy coming out of the Kyrim in the scrip which it was in.
I felt my body infused with power. I felt more alive as the death got sucked out of me.
Finally, I could write my own story, and all it begged was a hint of courage, and the divine magic handed down from our forefathers.
I felt my muscles grow to ten times their size. My back bent over, as did my neck, under the weight of a huge hump. Thunderous force shot through my forehead and I could feel charging my way like the minotaur I had become. I charged into the Orkah, which had far outnumbered me at this point.
The place became a bloody mess, and the following morning, I returned to my tribe to a roaring welcome, fit for a vanquishing king returning from war.
It was at that moment that I realized even the threads could be torn and sewn.
The Fates make provisions for contingencies.
We are all born with a mark. Incisor or charm - talon or totem - you decide.