Totem

Adara and Abe were best friends. It went beyond their youth, they shared more than just being young and in the same tribe, the way most kids are roped into friendships by default. “Here is a child” an elder would say to Adara, plopping a drooling, shitting thing in front of her. “Now waste each other’s time until sunset.”

Companionship was not the way of their tribe. Theirs was a stern and solitary people. The forest was dangerous, life was short and to combat endless grief, you were not to be bound to one you could outlive, or whom could outlive you. They did not marry, children were placed in the impassive care of the elders and when you came of age, you were bound only to your totem: your spirit animal.

The ceremony was simple. The children entered the forest with a small vial, made of clay. They would return with it topped to the brim with the blood of a certain animal or they would not return at all. The vial would be passed to the magus and before your very eyes, conjured from the soil, blood and earth becoming bone and flesh; your totem would be born. This spirit animal, ghost-made-flesh of the creature you bled, was bound to you for the rest of your days. When you perished, it would simply cease, revert back into the earth and blood from which it was created, and return to the soil once more. Monkeys were popular, as where lizards amongst the less agile children. You could have any animal of the forest you so wished, but getting the blood was your responsibility.

Adara’s earliest memory was seeing the conjuring of Situ’s totem. Situ was the current leader of their tribe and had nearly died filling her vial. She stumbled out of the forest, bleeding heavily from a slash to her thigh and with the skin of her left arm shorn to the bone. As she was being attended to, the magus whispered and chanted. The villagers broke into wild applause and joyful singing when the blood and earth raised to form a bear, which reared to its full height and bellowed.

Your totem was your partner, bound to you and you alone. Friendships were fleeting, love, and all people, died, and when they hunted, Situ and her bear rode off into the forest alone.

Abe and Adara were different. They were not forced together by the circumstance of I’m-a-child-you’re-a-child. They chose each other. They were friends in their blood and in their bones. He bloodied her lip, she broke his thumb, and still they ran together.

Adara would leave her hut late at night, scamper through the village, avoiding the elders and the nightfowl, until she reached Abe’s leaf-sheltered cave. Then she and he would run the forest at night, mudfighting, eating stolen peaches or hiding in bushes, waiting to whip peach stones at passing birds. Mostly, Abe would try and teach Adara his trick of how to make your eyeballs vibrate in their sockets. These are very important things that best friends do.

Perhaps the surest sign that they were onto a good thing: the elders tried to keep them apart. “She’s no good for you” said Adara’s elder. Abe’s did the same.

“Who worse for the other: you for me, or me for you,” asked Adara, once they’d snuck out later that night.

“Oh, you’re worse for me,” said Abe, matter-of-factly. “You eat dizzyberries and I don’t eat dizzyberries, so you’re definitely the problem.”

“Fair enough,” said Adara. “Have some berries.”

“Ok,” said Abe. Then they both got a bit dizzy.

But this was not supposed to last. They were both in their thirteenth year, the year of the ceremony. The night before the big day, they sat on the highest branch of the tallest tree they could find, and looked out across the valley. Abe was unsteady, had never been the most careful climber, and she held him safe until he found his balance. The treetops swayed slightly in the night’s breeze, the cool air on their skin. The stars were out in legion.

“What do you think?” Abe asked her after a long wait.

“I think you’ll get a frog” she replied. He laughed.

“I could kill a frog” he said, puffing his chest out. “I am a warrior.”

They laughed and looked at each other, so young and sad and full of thoughts that could not find their way into words. He squeezed her hand, and she his.

“Monkey?” he said.

“Monkey” she replied. Then silence again.

The next day, their elders pressed the clay vial into their hands and they dashed into the forest. “Race you,” screamed Adara as she broke away and ran towards the waterfall. “Too easy,” she heard Abe yell behind her, going his own way. She clambered up the rock face, water rushing down beside her and perched on the stone peak. From there she scoured the trees and spotted a small troop of monkeys west of her, dozing in the tangled limbs of a liana tree. She tied up her hair, grabbed a piece of flint and headed west.

She was dashing back towards to the village, careful to keep her monkey blood from spilling but anxious to beat Abe’s time, when she stumbled upon a sight that broke her heart.

“Please come,” she said to villagers, when she emerged slowly from the trees. Her voice was numb. “Please.”

The elders brought Abe’s body back. She had found him at the foot of a 190-foot tualang tree, neck broken against an exposed root. He was never the best climber, said the elders, tutting to each other. They covered him in palm fronds while they prepared a grave.

“Can we take that?” the elders said to Adara. She did not reply. “Adara” they said again, louder. She looked at them blankly. They looked at her vial, which had been clamped to her chest tight, her knuckles wrapped white around it. “Please, dear. Come away.”

They lead her away from the pile of leaves and walked her carefully towards the magus. She had not cried, but started to feel the prickle of tears in her eyes when she stood alone, in front of the village, at the magus’ altar. She handed him the small, red-stained piece of clay and watched. He poured out the blood, whispered and prayed. The earth shuddered and moved, the soil mounting and sculpting itself into shape. The mud became flesh, bones grew, and hair sprouted until her totem stood newborn before her. The villagers gasped. She had not been sure if it would work.

“Hello, Adara” said Abe.

“Hello, monkey” she replied.

The elders stared at them as they embraced, and did not follow them as they dashed into the forest, never to return.

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