Tamil watched his father unload their pack beasts with a fierce determination in his eyes. He was nine years old now, almost a man. The night before they had set out, their donkeys loaded, their horses watered, he had wandered off from the camp and made a little bonfire. He had thrown his wooden horse upon it along with his archers and spearmen. His brow furrowed, his eyes looking on intently. He smiled broadly, proud of his own commitment to becoming a man, and throwing away all such childish things.
Bagdor, a broad shouldered man with a long black beard walked over to Tamil, a proud smile set in his face. Today was an important day for a father and a son. The wind swept sand into Tamil’s eyes, he lifted his hand to his face and squinted as the merciless sun beat down upon him. Hator, the Sun God was with them today, this most sacred of days; the start of their pilgrimage. The first step to Tamil becoming a man.
As Bagdor reached his son, he offered him a wooden bowel to drink from. Tamil greedily lapped up the mixture of ice, milk, and honey that had been offered to him. So sweet, so refreshing. Bagdor’s men started to prepare the camp, set the yurts into the ground, lead the horses to water. Bagdor and Tamil sat upon a rock together, Tamil continued to drink. Bagdor looked to his boy, his eyes brimming with warmth.
“The gods have given Man countless gifts” intoned Bagdor. Tamil turned to meet his father’s eyes. He always enjoyed hearing about the gods, even the stories he already knew.
“But among them there are six which are considered the ‘great gifts’. Do you know what these are, Tamil?”
He shook his head. He thought he knew at least three, but didn’t want to interrupt.
“The ‘great gifts’ are women, horses, water, fruit, mushrooms… and music” he said the last word with an especial reverence. “What do you think of that Tamil, do you agree?”
“Of all the many gifts the gods have given us, it surprises me these should be the ‘great’ six, father” replied Tamil. He spoke slowly, considering his words carefully. He wanted his father to look to him for support and advice, and for assistance in combat, the way he did with his warriors; Hagar, and Tagudai. As such he always took care with choosing his words when speaking to his father.
“How so, son?” Bagdor beamed a wide smile with his mouth opening to reveal the missing and crooked teeth that make up the smile of a warrior.
“Well I can understand why we need water; to live, and horses are what make us warriors and conquerors. Fruit is sweet and nourishing, and music unites the tribes in merriment. But I don’t understand why women and mushrooms are important”.
Bagdor laughed uproariously, rising to his feet as he did. His face flushed red in the midst of Hator’s kiss. “Well son, the importance and joy of women may become clearer to you, when you are older. I think you would understand more of their importance now, if your mother had survived your birth. She would have loved you so dearly, and been so proud to see what a brave, and wise man you are growing into. As for the mushrooms, well they are the food of the gods, which they deign to share with us mortals. Upon eating them we can dream whilst awake, and we can see the realm of Hator, and his seven sisters, and of all the gods and goddesses”.
Dream whilst awake. His father’s words stayed with Tamil that night. He wondered if his father had simply been referring to daydreaming. But he knew he must have meant something different, something special. Tamil lay in his yurt, his woollen blankets covering him. He still felt the crisp cold of a night spent sleeping on the steppe as the wind caressed his face. The winds passing through the yurts made the sounds of wolves or other such howling creatures. Tamil closed his eyes and saw the form of a great wolf, the wolf reached its claws to pull off its own face, and beneath it was the face of a woman; young, beautiful, and enchanting. In a flash, with the blink of his eyes, her face turned old and wizened like that of a crone. But not a witch Tamil thought. No, she is a wise woman, beautiful in a different way. Tamil’s eyes closed and without any effort at all sleep overcame him.
The pilgrimage to the Red Temple of Hator would confirm Tamil’s passage into manhood. He would finally be allowed to braid his hair. On the day of his ceremony, his wrist would be emblazoned with the tattoo of his tribe; two green serpents copulating on a field of blood red. Only the very vilest of criminals and traitors had their tattoos burned off. Most men would sooner be castrated than lose the mark of their tribe. Tamil had no intention of suffering such a fate. He would be a fierce warrior, a fair leader, and a kind father and husband. All the things his father was and which had made him respected amongst all other warriors. The six great gifts his father described all had a part to play in the pilgrimage. The journey was by horseback of course. The Red Temple was surrounded by a great moat which you could bathe in. Everyone would eat blackcurrants, strawberries, and cranberries whilst drinking wine as Tamil was tattooed, and the ritual performed by a high priestess. There would be the playing of strings, and drums, and there would be singing and dancing.
The sun was high in the sky, as Tamil and Bagdor rode at the front of their caravan. Bagdor drank water from his flask lustfully. Every little thing he did, he seemed to relish, everything was there to be enjoyed. Tamil observed him coolly. He knew his father made the people around him feel good. It was a gift he hoped he might have too one day but he couldn’t be sure. He didn’t know yet how his father always smiled. Even when talking about mother, he was never sad. He would always make some jest of how lucky Hator and the other gods were to have her now, and simply move on.
“So how will the six great gifts be represented in the ritual? Do you know?” Bagdor turned to Tamil, his eyes wide, his brows arched.
“Well, we are riding horses now, the moat is for the water, the berries and wine for the fruit, musicians will play for my ceremony, and the high priestess is for women. I just don’t know about the mushrooms”.
“Hmm very good. You guessed more than I did when I was your age. And you’re smarter than your uncles too!” laughed Bagdor. “However though it is true this temple has a high priestess, some have high priests, so she does not represent women in the ritual. You guessed four out of six. But the mushrooms are simple. After the ceremony you will eat a Dream Mushroom for the first time. The part which represents women however… well…” Bagdor’s face broke out into a huge infectious grin. Hagar and Tagudai who were riding close by started chuckling too. Tamil flushed red. They all know something.
The Red Temple of Hator finally came into view after many days of riding. It shimmered like a mirage but solidified as they drew closer. The red bricks of the temple were like nothing Tamil had seen before. And the moat was clear and inviting. As the horses were tied up, many young girls aged between eight and twelve came scurrying up to Tamil and his father’s men offering them plates with berries on them. Their mothers and older sisters watched from the distance, waving and smiling. Tagudai grinned broadly and winked at one of these older sisters, who covered her mouth to hide her laughter as she buried her face in the shoulder of another of the women. Tagudai turned red and Hagar slapped his back jovially. Tamil laughed and took a handful of blackcurrants from a plate offered to him by a girl with feline features. Well she kind of looks like a cat.
“May the gods bless you this day, Tamil” said the cat girl, blushing as she spoke.
“Thank you, what is your name?”
“Which tribe are you from Amarte?”
“Please Tamil, don’t worry about the tribe, you should pick a girl who has fire in her eyes!” she exclaimed before pausing as Tamil returned her look with narrowed eyes, biting his lower lip. Finally she added “and I do Tamil, I do!”
Tamil didn’t understand what she was talking about, although for a split second he did feel that he saw flame burst in each of her pupils. Maybe Hator was trying to tell him something?
“Pick a girl for what? I don’t dance anyway…” Tamil shrugged his shoulders and shovelled more blackcurrants into his mouth. Amarte raised an eyebrow in curiosity. He was a strange boy after all but… not bad necessarily.
Tamil winced with pain, his flesh burned. The high priestess stood above him speaking the tongue of their ancestors which he could not understand. She was more singing than speaking now. The transition had been seamless. Naked men and women danced around the fires in the centre of the temple. Stringed instruments were plucked as drums were banged, and countless voices lifted into the sky to join the chorus of the priestess’s song. Tamil’s head was thick with pain. He couldn’t cry or scream. He would never dishonour father like that. Never!
But it did hurt, as the tribe’s sigil snaked its way up his wrist until finally he was made a man. In the corner of his eye he could see Hagar and Tagudai eating berries and drinking wine with the warriors of other tribes. And finally he could see his father smiling and nodding at him. He fell to his knees; he felt strong, he felt free.
The part of the ritual which represents women soon became clear. Today Tamil was expected to choose the girl who would be his first wife. As Hagar and Tagudai smiled encouragement at him, his father lead him by the hand to where various daughters of other tribe leaders and proud warriors had been assembled in a line in front of him. He recognised many from that morning, when the greeting gift of fruit had been presented.
“A word of advice from an old man” said Bagdor. Tamil looked up to his father.
“We all feel strong at times, weak at others. A strong body, wealth and treasure, youth and beauty, these are all forms of power. And they are all dangerous to become addicted to. They are all blown around like sand in the wind, they all fade, or rot like meat left on the bone. None of that lasts. The greatest power is found in love, wisdom, kindness. The real treasures of Hator”.
“Why did you choose mother?”
“For the same reason I never took another wife… the fire in her eyes” Bagdor squeezed Tamil’s shoulder as he said these last words.
Tamil looked up and found he was looking into the feline features of Amarte once more. She smiled back at him.
A dream mushroom tastes much like any other mushroom, Tamil concluded upon finishing his that evening. Although as time went by he felt himself begin to swing unwittingly in time with the drums and the strings. He felt like he was really hearing the music for the first time. Like he had never heard it before. It felt wonderful, he didn’t know how to describe it; it was just different somehow. And everything looked and felt a little more… more real, more vivid. As Tamil watched the naked dancers, they began to shapeshift before his very eyes. Some took the forms of foxes, or wolves, others were horses, or antelopes, some became birds, and others fish. Soon the dancers were embracing each other, some started to make love, others sucked upon the manhood of other’s as though drinking from a fountain. Some licked in between the thighs of women, and some bit deep into the flesh of their dancing partners, so as to draw blood. And where blood spilled upon the floor, all those who saw it threw themselves to the ground to lap it up as if it were honeyed milk. Tamil stared on in wonderment.
Once more he saw the old crone, she was stood calmly leaning on her stick in the heart of all the chaos. She smiled at Tamil, and he felt relaxed like everything would be fine if he just held her gaze. Before his eyes her face transformed again, into the young woman he had seen in his dream. She had feline features and her brown eyes burst with flame. Lastly he was looking into the face of a great wolf. He reached his hand to the plate by his side and filled his mouth with blackcurrants. He looked down at his wrist and the two serpents. He felt an immense rush of pride and joy.
He was sad to leave Amarte behind but the day of their wedding would not be until after she had bled. Reluctantly he bid farewell to the Red Temple, and its clear and brilliant moat. In the cool, crisp morning sun, Tamil dutifully rode behind his father, back to their home. But the final test had not yet been passed.
“A man must know how to feed himself. A man cannot live off fruits and seeds alone” Bagdor told him. “Today you will kill your own dinner”.
They had hidden amongst the bushes, after tracking a herd of antelope. Tamil was nestled beneath his father’s arm. Bagdor steadied his bow and readied his aim. Only to demonstrate. Tamil followed the example. He had always been a quick learner. The antelope he had chosen was in his sights. He pulled back on his arrow and felt the bow tense. He released, and the arrow flew through the air, cutting a path to the antelope, and finally burying itself in the creature’s neck. As Tamil and Bagdor approached it, Tamil felt faint, he felt outside of his own body as if he was watching himself from a distance. As they approached the antelope, Tamil let out a wail in shock. He was looking down at his own maggot infested corpse, his manhood was pointing up, his bum and hips drowning in his own excrement, and a vulture was pecking out his eyes.
Bagdor looked at him concerned, he had no idea what was troubling his son.
Then the image he saw changed, he saw a woman’s face, half was the beauty from his dreams but the other half of her face was that of the wise crone. Her body was gone, and replaced with the body of a wolf. Dead and rotting wolf cubs suckled on their mother’s nipples.
Finally the dead antelope was back where it should be, and Tamil saw the bright and fiery eyes of Amarte in his mind’s eye. He turned with an expression of fierce determination to his father. His father who was always laughing and smiling, always the joker, he turned to him and finally he asked…
“Is mother really with Hator, father? Is she not just gone, is she not just nothing now?”
“I don’t know” replied Bagdor. “I don’t know if she’s with Hator, but everything changes, like how this antelope will change into our energy, and how flames change into ashes. So I don’t think she is nothing. But I don’t know for sure”.
It seemed strange to Tamil that after trying so hard for so long to appear strong in front of his father, the first time he ever cried in front of him was after he became a man, after the tattoo, after the ritual, and after he chose a bride. The tears rolled down his cheeks, and into his mouth, they tasted salty.
Salt, why isn’t that one of the great gifts? thought Tamil.
I’m an EFL teacher from the UK, and I’ve lived and worked in China and Japan as well as the UK. I love travel, literature, and cinema. I write poems and short stories, and I write, produce, and direct short films. In 2016 I co-founded Yanagi Studios, and have made three short films with Yanagi thus far. My works cover themes of death positivity, consciousness, human spirit and struggles, and often feature a strong dose of gallows humour. I have a passion for the horror, fantasy, and sci-fi genres. My favourite novel is Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki.