Three: a Test of Nerve
Ahead, a kaleidoscope of light danced on the edge of the darkness. Had I not had Billy’s gift, I would have sworn the swarm of colour swam way off in the distance, but we were close. The smell of ancient, musty air pervaded every orifice, every pore and stuck to the body like some virulent, bacterial secondary skin. I had no sensation of the cold, yet knew that it was. Within minutes we, Billy, I and more of his (our) kind, were in a cavern beyond the charcoal columns and darkness. The bleached, uneven walls, which appeared like ice, but were in fact formed of some rugged white crystal formed over millennia, glowed with the greens and pinks of the torches that the anticipant crowd held aloft as they chanted and danced.
These forms were not human but from some distant point back along the evolutionary chain thousands of years hence, long before the upright being came into existence, somehow outliving the ice ages that these fellows must surely have endured. Crouched, half-ape, half-boy, they hopped and skipped in unison, misshapen skulls bowing and rising, bowing and rising. In a carved out trough in the ‘ice’ around which they circled lay a writhing body, turned on its side with a fawn-coloured Hessian sack covering its head, tied coarsely beneath the chin.
This was what we had come here for.
Beneath that sack I instinctively knew struggled my sister. I could tell her outline anywhere, even the very way she writhed in defiance in this alien place was as good as her signature. For a second, I was horrified. But not for what was about to happen – I had little doubt about the outcome, though still didn’t know what Draconian method these ancients would apply to their end – but my fear was that my sister should me so in this state. So sheepishly weak, yet hungering for a life that would wring more from existence than I could ever hope to achieve as a mortal. Then it dawned upon me that she could not see me and probably never would again.
Billy walked me to the edge of the trough, ensuring that I understood. I didn’t even need to visually acknowledge this undertaking – he knew. Knew that I knew that before us lay my sister, seconds away from certain death. If I moved to stop this sacrifice, I would surely join her beyond the grave. But I neither felt moved to nor that I should. That she should give her life unwillingly that I could move up the evolutionary chain myself seemed an acceptable pay-off in my clouded mind.
The test had begun.
The long, thin canes of bamboo that the Neanderthals had shunted in their chanting were inserted, one by one, into the rope that secured the bag around my sister’s head. Each was twisted, once inside the noose, to eventually make an upside down tee-pee frame, the tips below the rope fashioned an almost African collar around my sisters nape, neck and décolletage. In silence, as if by some inaudible command, the cave dwellers twisted the canes as one until the collar and the rope became tighter. The tee-pee frame drew in with each turn of their hairy, sinewy forearms, making a flute from the canes.
The writhing stopped, at last; the head beneath the sack was crushed beyond recognition, all but the nose protruding between two canes identifying the object within as something that was once human and that had possessed such brilliant wisdom. The sticks twisted yet even more tightly together and finally popped that head from the neck that had once held it secure between her delicate shoulders. Now I knew why they had placed a bag over her head and not just inserted the canes into a bare noose. The dancing stopped, the whole cave was suddenly hanging upon my reaction.
Should I have succumbed to madness then, like any normal human being would have done in the circumstance, my fate would have been sealed. But what happened surprised even me. I nodded with a satisfied grunt and at once the dancing and chanting and circling of the trough recommenced. The canes were slipped out of the noose and the bag removed.
To my utter surprise, my sister awoke, drowsy, rubbing at her throat, but other than that, in tact. What sorcery had been used I know not, but I was only yards away from that terrible passage of events designed to test my mettle. I had been convinced that my sister had been beheaded in some ancient ritual designed by a god who had came, conquered and thankfully disappeared from all existence a long time ago. I have to admit, a tremor of relief rumbled through my heart that she had survived. She was trying to tell anyone that would listen, not that they would understand, that she had nearly choked. Shock prevented her from realising that all of those around her were of a different breed. And still she ranted and they still chanted.
What became of her, I think that part of the story is yet to unfold. I know that she is not dead. Do not ask how. I just know. But Billy was already leading me away from the furore – I was glad of that – and those others who had walked with us through the charcoal columns from the streets to this cave that time had not touched were finding my sister safe haven, of that I am certain. Yet know not why.
Then, it was just Billy and I, walking further into the crystal chamber. The floor looked like boa-feathers, but the ridges were hard, like upturned clam-shells making a tidal carpet of glistening calcium, refracting all the colours of the spectrum and thousands in-between. The cave abruptly came to an end, like the inside of a nose cone in a World War II fighter jet. Billy thrust me down into its tiny corner.
For the first time since being given the Rite of Passage, I felt physical pain. The crystalline ridges, as sharp as the edges of the clam shells they purported to be, cut into my thighs and naked calves. From a sheath on his thigh, Billy raised a small Mohawk axe, more like a Gil Hibben throwing axe, but wrought from some ancient iron, its blade sharpened a thousand times over countless centuries, its keen edge glinting, glistening of the pearlescence surroundings. Had my sliver of passion for my sister’s survival betrayed me?
For the first time that night I resisted Billy’s advances. The grimace stretched his clown-mouth across the entirety of his white-painted face, making The Joker’s make up look almost understated; his tombstone teeth, webbed and dripping with blood and drool, clenched together forcing that insane grin wider still.
As the axe came crashing down towards my skull, cutting the stagnant air with a whistle, I raised my arm instinctively to shield the blow and then…