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The Tablet

In: English and Literature

Submitted By jccross
Words 4027
Pages 17
THE TABLET With two hands grasping a thin stone tablet, Priam struggled to leap into the tree in complete silence. The branch swayed under his weight and rustled its leaves. Priam froze. Too much noise! Too much! He drew himself rigid. He refused to breathe. His heart hammered within his chest.
He was close now, the tall gray mass peeking from the breaks in the leaves. His senses heightened as if he were hunting, but his knees trembled, his breaths shortened and grew louder against his will, and his instincts told him to flee. But Priam battled his instinct and sprang into the final tree. Priam perched upon a branch near the edge of the forest, eyes wide. Priam would not release his tablet, he never wished to abandon it from his strong grip, so he lowered himself onto the branch with one foot and swung the other over the branch until he sat with his legs dangling below him. The wall had not fled. And he could watch it. It was an enormous gray mass, climbing high into the sky so Priam could only see it through the canopy if he ventured to the thinnest edge of the forest. The wall never darted into its land of the Others, those that had driven his people into the forest long ago. Yet it threatened Priam, to flee, to disappear, to leave him alone. So Priam skulked toward it every time as not to awake it from its slumber. He had been successful today, and he could breathe again.
As he stared at the wall, he lifted the tablet before him, his tongue wagging from the side of his mouth. His thumbs turned white as they pressed against the tablet, for Priam took great care that he should not drop it. Against the wall the tablet appeared a darker shade of gray, outlining its rectangular shape and jagged edges on top of the lighter gray. Priam frowned. He tilted the tablet into the sun. The rays fell upon its surface. The tablet lightened. Still dark, too dark. Thumbs aching but never loosening his grasp, Priam slowly tilted the tablet until its shade of gray matched that of the wall behind it so they blended and became one. Then Priam purred and heaved the tablet into his chest He cradled it in his arms as if it were a child, gazing at it in the same way, nibbling on its edge and caressing it with his cheek, feeling its crevices and hard grains mingle with the scruff of his beard. Before long, however, he grimaced. He set it upon his lap, crinkled his nose, and spat.
The marks scratched into his tablet had long since lost meaning to him, but Priam knew to whom they belonged. He remembered the way the Elder Lady used to write upon them, with those crooked-curved lips on her face as if she had triumphed through means unfit for a Lady. At the thought, Priam growled aloud, narrowing his dark eyes until he saw only silhouettes and shadows through their slits.
Figures, figures like himself, slithered by his narrowed eyes. Priam hopped to his feet. The tree branch shook in his carelessness. But only the wall stood before him. He was still alone. Still, the wall hid many of them, Priam knew. He saw them pass by its base many times before during the silent hours he watched the wall upon this tree. Every day he waited for the wall to reveal them to him. Tiny, too far away for even his keen eyes to be sure, they walked on two legs and held a posture like he remembered of his own people. He might have seen three silhouettes with the same posture. Perhaps they had wandered too near to his forest by accident. They never came nearer than the wall. Or had his eyes deceived him? His gaze snapped to the wall, afraid his movement had wakened it. But he burned with the desire to thrash and snap branches. Stir the wall, so he might cower before it and question with his eyes, plead for the three gifts. The tablet pressed against his chest, he searched, yearned. Though the thought of others like him fell like a shadow over him and made him snarl, he could not help himself. Shaking his head in violent jerks, Priam tried to slam shut his eyes. Still they peeked. Close them! Close them! He remembered them, their manner. He forced his gaze onto the tablet. He remembered. The Elder Lady was the mother of Priam’s mother who had been sold many years before after giving birth to Priam and his sister, who was born four years later. His father had not survived a raid upon the Others, and all Priam’s remembered young life the Elder Lady raised him. She spoke nothing of his mother and only ill things of his father. He was too small. Too weak. Too slow. The reasons he died in the raid. She said these things to him as she handed him fox or hare and sewed the brown robes of deerskin that he seemed to outgrow every year. Big and strong, she called him. Always stronger. Smart and wise. Good. All these Priam was. He strived to become what his father was not, though deep within him something questioned the Elder Lady’s words. His only memory of the man, when his vision was poor and his mind still young, was one of a territorial and feared man, clutching Priam’s tiny body close to his chest, surrounded by creatures Priam later learned to call bears. His father drove away the beasts. He rolled across the ground, glided into trees. But the noble memory was vague. The Elder Lady insisted it was false. Then the day came. Priam clutched the tablet harder, digging his nails into its stone, as he remembered. She had grasped the bag and dumped it into her hands, the gold nuggets clunking against each other as they fell into her palm and overflowed, falling for what seemed forever until thudding against the forest floor. Priam gazed at his sister. She was skinny with golden blonde hair and long eyelashes that burned an amber color in the sun above the canopy. Then he looked at the man, an Other, who continued to eye Priam’s sister as well, crooked-curved lips on his face like that of the Elder Lady. After the Elder Lady nodded, she twirled a thin chisel in her fingers before scratching into a thin stone tablet. The man, who seemed to understand what this meant, nodded in return and seized Priam’s sister. He guided her onto the wooden bridge from the tree in which Priam and the Elder Lady remained. They did not stay any longer. Priam watched his sister look over her shoulder into his eyes until she faded into the darkness of the canopy, vanished. Gone forever. The Elder Lady rattled the gold pieces in her hand. A noise like a jovial bark erupted from her lips. “A beauty she was, she will be used well,” she said, and then she looked at Priam. “You are a beauty also, but with much different purpose. You will find an Elder beauty of your own to bear other men of beauty. I see much great purpose in you.” Priam had said nothing. She looked from him to the gold in her hand, fondling the pieces with one finger. The crooked-curved lips on her face pulled back her skin and revealed every deep wrinkle in her face. “What pleasure.” Every time before, Priam had restrained himself, but her words broke him. He scowled at her, his limbs trembling. She looked at him, frowning in what looked like surprise, but soon raised her finger. Priam knew that scolding finger. It drove him past even his own intentions. He roared, ripped the tablet from the Elder Lady’s hands, and leapt from the tree, rolled across the forest floor, pounced to his feet, and sprinted. To where, he knew not. But he sprinted far from his people and their evil, the image of his sister’s long amber eyelashes still burning before his eyes. Priam remembered the fire the next summer. The Others apparently were angry with a transaction. They raided the village and killed Priam’s people. Only Priam, who still fed himself and wandered within the forest, survived. They left Priam alone in the wild with no other speaking creature, but at the time Priam loved them for it. He never mourned.
Instead, the memories only snagged the words of his grandmother and pulled them back to the forefront of his mind: What pleasure, what pleasure, what pleasure. The silence beat upon him as he stared at the tablet, remembering the two kinds of people he sought, those that sold his sister and those forbidden to him.
Voices hammered in his ear like the wrapping of a woodpecker against bark. Priam crouched in the tree, his eyes wide again. In silence now, his ears perked, he crawled toward the trunk of the tree, his tablet tucked under one arm, and scanned the forest below him. Before he saw them, he smelled them and looked in the direction of their scent.
He indeed had seen three figures. They talked in harsh voices that could have been shouts as they shattered the stillness of the forest. They lumbered beneath Priam, passing by his tree without a glance in his direction.
Two men, tall and bulky with round bellies, heaved upon the arms of a girl. Priam’s eyes grew wide. He leaned forward, absorbing all he could in the quick glance he had of them through the leafy branches. The men were the most like him. They were larger than him, with fairer hair, but they moved like he did, although clumsy with their steps. Burly arms clung to one of the man’s shoulders like those of a bear, hiding none of his prowess, the alpha, for the other had smooth naked skin though he was more rotund. These creatures interested him, but his interest in them paled to that of the girl.
She was also tall, nearly the same height as the men, but thin. Her firm muscles formed the curves of her arms and legs as she battled with the two men. The looks on their faces suggested they had not expected the trouble she caused them. Priam looked on with wonder at her, at her bared teeth and harrowing eyes, and something within him tugged him toward her even though he recognized her vicious gestures as the snarls of the coyote approached while eating. Her hair was short and filled with thorns and twigs from thrashing, but Priam could see its vitality, as if it in itself was living, shining the color of poison berries drenched in honey. She had the strongest scent of them all, something Priam had not smelled before. Something sweet, unlike him. Like the forest in spring. It intoxicated him.
Leaning farther forward than he knew, Priam nearly dropped from the tree, and he clambered backward to find his balance. Branches snapped and leaves sang to the audience of three, but the men did not seem to notice, perhaps unable to hear the ruckus over their own grunts and growls. But the girl, she glanced toward the tree, and for a fleeting second Priam froze as a hare who knows the hawk has seen him. Then she looked into his eyes, a fire behind her gaze. Priam released a silent gasp. His heart throbbed in his mind and chest. And he knew that she was unlike him, and that she was far more majestic, far greater, and that he would have to earn his gift.
Growling his words, one of the men spoke in a language that Priam had never heard before, but he listened in curiosity and awe. It was light and smooth. Priam enjoyed it, though he did not know why. It was a birdsong mixed with the tatter of the forest vermin. The words rolled off the tongue and danced on the teeth, near the front of the mouth, unlike anything Priam ever remembered hearing.
“This would have been quick and painless if you had cooperated, girl,” the alpha said. “You will regret it. Just wait, just you wait. It’ll be brutal.”
“Maybe we’ll just leave you here in the heart of the forest,” said the second man with smooth naked skin. “They say a wolfman lives here. His body is that of a man, but his face is covered in the hair of a wolf. He slays anything that dares wander into his land uninvited.” The man leaned closer to the girl. “And no one is invited.”
The bearlike man shook his head. “Nah, but you’d escape. You’ve got a little fight in you. And we’re supposed to leave you dead. If you want to leave, then you can leave, but not alive.”
“You should have known we’d find you. You don’t run. You belong to somebody. Even years later, and your master never forgets. Like an elephant.” He released another bark that scraped Priam’s ears. It was close to the sound of the Elder Lady.
“Let’s get it done.” The alpha pulled from his belt a long piece of steel. Priam raised his eyebrows, but then narrowed his eyes. He also had a knife, which he used for skinning, building, anything--but not killing. The alpha meant to breach this forest law.
The man with the knife slammed his fist into the girl’s cheek while the other wrapped his arms around both of the girl’s. Then a burly arm placed the knife at the girl’s neck. The alpha scowled. The girl looked over her shoulder toward Priam’s tree and shuddered as the man ran the knife down her chest, stomach, waist…
The knife sank into the alpha’s chest before Priam felt the cold forest floor beneath his bare feet. Wide eyes of surprise stared blankly at him. Priam blinked, now aware of his bloody hand. He slid out the blade and launched it at the second man. It slit the man’s left eye, which oozed onto his nose. Priam leapt over the girl and the man, clasped the man’s head, one upon the smooth snout, the other above the neck. Visions of wolves and wildcats to which Priam had done the same flashed before his eyes. Priam snarled. His eyes glistened with the thrill of the hunt. He jerked.
The body fell limp. Priam watched as the girl wriggled from the man’s arms and scampered into the forest, wide eyes and a gaping mouth turning to look at Priam.
Priam bounded back into the tree. He crawled across a branch, his calm, glistening eyes fixed on the girl as he stalked in silence, creeping the end of the branch upon his calloused fingers and toes, the tablet still clutched between three fingers and his palm. Around another branch he swung and into another tree he pounced, finally flipping to the ground beside the girl. She skidded to a halt and spun, kicking roots and dirt into the air as she sprinted. Leaping into the trees again, Priam frowned and tilted his head in confusion. He prowled above her, flitting into the next tree and slinking around the branches, eyes fixed on the girl. Tired of the chase he dropped from the tree and crouched before her. Now the girl froze. Her eyes only widened.
Her scent overwhelmed Priam. It was difficult to stand as he rose, for his body succumbed to her scent and relaxed. His shoulders slumped, his eyelids drooped. She smelled like budding fruits, sweet as their sugar. Her bronze skin must taste like their meat. Priam reached for her cheek, wishing to place his finger upon her, to see how she felt, to taste her residue, but she leaned out of his reach. At this Priam crumpled his brow. She should not resist him.
With speed she could not resist, Priam wrapped his arm around her and sprang into the nearest tree. He clawed up the trunk and leapt from branch to branch until they swayed in the skinniest, highest limbs. She screamed, piercing his ears so he winced, but he held her close in the same way he held his tablet. She continued screaming, an unwavering shriek that Priam struggled to ignore. There, in the height of the tree, he snapped young twigs and strong vines from the branches, weaving them as he gathered. With one hand he bound her hands, crawled down a branch, bound her feet, and carried her down the tree. Now she would not resist. Now he had her.
He gently placed her upon the forest floor. There was silence. The forest had stopped to study this gift of the wall, this creature so like himself yet so much greater to answer his solitude. He desired another view. He stepped around to the other side. She was beautiful. He stepped again. Unaware he had started, Priam began circling her. Beads of sweat broke across his neck, chest, and forehead. They cooled as the air struck him. And his senses ignited.
The light, once dull beneath the canopy, seemed to sear his eyes with its intensity. Priam dared not squint. He might hinder his vision and less enjoy her. With a tender grip Priam held his tablet before him, glancing from the girl to it to the girl, as he did with the wall. He heaved long, shaky breaths. She lay below him, writhing in her bonds. Golden light radiated from her skin. She was a sun buried in the earth and wrestling to reach the treetops. Now her skin smelled different. Still the spring fruits smell lingered, but she smelled more like him now. After glancing at him she stopped moving and screaming. All was silent. Deafening silence circled him as he circled her. Too silent. It screeched in his ears. Priam swatted at his ears. The smack reverberated in his head long after he had ripped down his arm, burning his muscles as if fire had caught them, because the girl had flinched. She still lay silent, so silent. He scowled at her, growling. Make a noise! She did not. Make a noise! Priam widened his eyes, alarmed. He must have frightened her. Even now that he had stopped scowling he bared his teeth involuntarily. The corners of his mouth had curved toward his eyes, baring his teeth. It scared the girl! Priam slammed shut his mouth, frightened that she might flee. But she could not flee. She was bounded. Priam sighed, though it rumbled as a growl. He bared his teeth again on accident.
“You are an Other,” he said in his own tongue. The word sounded like a river after the first thaw. To Priam it meant civilized people who did not sell and hate kin. Who were not alone. Noble, beautiful people. People of the wall. People like his tablet. “You are civilization.”
A blank stare and silence answered him. Priam resigned a moment to stare again at the tablet in his hand. For so long he had awaited this moment, but now he knew not what to do. The forest taught him nothing of civilization. He felt no instinct. Thus the tablet must serve as his guidance, as his entry. The tablet answered him. What pleasure. “My pleasure.”
“Not I am.”
Priam jumped at his own language spoken to him. He stopped circling the girl and stared at her. “You speak my tongue?”
“A foolish question.” The girl’s eyes still carried a lashing fire.
Priam threw back his shoulders and frowned. “No purpose but pleasure.”
“Forest days have confused you, Priam.”
Priam widened his eyes. He gaped at her in silence, but he needed not say anything. “You know me,” the girl said. She glared at him, her eyes bulging to the shape of nuts but silver like the wolf’s moon. Their sheen splashed light over her long, amber eyelashes. Her gaze fell on the tablet in Priam’s hand and did not move.
With a trembling hand, Priam held up the tablet and ran his gaze over its scratches. By instinct, or more, his free hand floated to the tablet, and Priam raked its fingers across the coarse ridges, brushing it with more fervor than he could have intended. His voice was shaky. “Little Sister.”
“Survived. Escaped.”
“Release me.”
“You are not an Other. Yet you left our people. You are of the world of the wall.” Priam cringed. He panted his breaths. “You are my wall. Yet you are Little Sister.”
She was also something else to him. Another emotion for which he had no name flushed through him. It forced him to lower his brow and frown. Though he did not know it, he understood. This knowledge thwarted his desire. She could not be his gift. Not like the tablet. What pleasure.
“Our purpose is not pleasure, Priam,” she said. She rolled to her knees and leaned toward him on her bounded wrists. “You are confused because you seek pleasure for your misery. You know nothing else. Yet we people seek misery for our pleasure. It is our purpose. To love and hate and suffer for good, and evil if it must come our way. Misery is our purpose, that we may appreciate pleasure.”
His weakness prevailed. Priam reached for her now that she was close. She did not resist. His finger slid down her forehead. It graced her hair--her soft, sweet-smelling, shimmering hair--and glided down her nose onto her soft lips. There he stopped. It was all soft. It did not feel like his tablet. Priam frowned. He could not understand how the pieces of one world could be so different. One of them was lying. Either the tablet or Little Sister. Yet his choice was not one of civil guidance or kinship guidance. It was one simpler. Darker, even he knew, yet deeper imbedded within his being. One forgotten and suppressed for seasons countless. An instinct he could not deny. And she was denying it. If her truth defeated that of his tablet, she left him only misery.
He wanted touch her again. It would make truth clearer.
Perhaps it was the look on his face, or the speed with which he lunged toward her, but Little Sister retreated. Her face formed to one of tension and wide eyes. Priam persisted. She pulled in her feet and thrashed at him. Her toenail sliced through the soft skin of his underarm. Priam drew back, wincing and gasping, his gaze fixed upon the rising blood. In the darkness of the forest, it looked like thick black sludge. Priam bared his teeth as he had done before, without consent.
“You are a beast. Not civilization. You are the liar.”
Still grasping the tablet, he purred and leapt upon her. He raked his fingers down her chest, up her thighs. He sunk his teeth into her shoulder and neck and arm and licked her face, explored the cavity of her mouth. The clothes hindered him. He stripped her and ripped through the Elder Lady’s brown robe. Sounds buzzed in his ears. Breathing, heaving, purrs and growls, shrieks and birds chirping. Light was all he could see, light and hair glistening like poison berries in the sun, and amber eyelashes slammed over fiery eyes. The smell in his nostrils--as if he rolled in ripe berries. Their blood poured as he squashed them beneath him, so goo slicked their bodies. But the berries were behind the wall, upon its floor, gray and solid and rough. It would scrape their skin raw. Priam made sure his forest would suffice.
After only a few minutes, she stopped screaming. Soon afterward she stopped squirming.
When Priam had finished, she was dead. When he had finished, he wept over her body, slave to his sobs. And then he hurled the tablet into the trunk of a nearby tree. It collided and shattered, crumbling into primitive stones and dust.

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