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The Woman and the Hunters
She was very young and she was pregnant; when she climbed up the mountain, the full basket on her head, her naked skin glowed with sweat and her bare feet trod unheedingly on stones and thorns.
It was the village’s Mother who had advised her to bear a gift to the prophetess on the mountain. During the day, the girl would walk about the village with her head high, proud of her fertility; but her nights were fraught with fear and apprehension. She would sometimes shrink in her corner when, in spite of the Mother’s clear prohibition, some gossips at the Womens’ House would amuse themselves by telling stories of the terrors of labour. They told of a woman who died when the new-born’s head was stuck between her thighs unable to emerge; of a baby dying in his mother’s bosom when only one day old; of women giving birth to monsters with two heads and six legs; and of dragons dropping from a woman’s belly, burning half the village with their breath. The girl, compelled to listen by some inner drive, was finally so shocked that one night she burst out of the Womens’ House, ran through the center of the village and into the Mother’s house, ignoring the man she was with and throwing herself at her feet.
The next day, following the Mother’s order, she took a basket, filled it with all the good things she could find - last year’s grain and dried fruit, and even a small, roasted chick saved from last night’s bonfire - and climbed up the mountain to consult the prophetess dwelling in the cave in the high cliffs.
The sun had just risen on a lovely spring day, and the hard climb was accompanied by bird song, insects humming and spots of flowers among the rocks. Here, the young woman had been a child among other children, going in search of birds’ eggs and digging for roots to eat; here they had played hide-and-seek and chasing each other until they fell laughing, hot and exhausted, on the rock-slabs to cool. Later, children’s games had turned into early love games, then into love-making which resulted in her present, first pregnancy. For the sake of this baby growing inside her she was going up the mountain, sacred to the Mother of All Living, to bring an offering to the prophetess dwelling in its cave, hoping to get the sybil’s blessing for an easy labour and a live, healthy child.
On the other side of the sacred mountain, completely unaware of its importance to the inhabitants of the village, hunters belonging to a desert tribe, who had arrived there the night before, were discussing a course of action for the day. Some of them had spotted a large animal, a mountain-goat bearing majestic crescent-like horns, leaping among the rocks. The younger men wanted to go immediately in chase of the beast, while the older ones advised caution on the unfamiliar terrain and the unknown country.
“We need to pray to Yahu first,” they argued, “to lead us on to the right path.” The animal, however, did not wait for decisions to be made. As it was vanishing on the hill-tops, a group of enthusiasts preferred to forgo arguing and, grasping their spears, were soon busy tracking its spoor on the soft soil in the crevices among the boulders.
The path the woman had followed had disappeared; the place she had arrived at was too holy for anyone to tread on unless for the purpose of taking an offering to the prophetess. The woman stopped, took the basket off her head, raised her eyes high above. A dark spot in the cliff hanging over her head marked the opening of the cave. The girl had never been there herself, only heard some stories told about it in whisper. They said, that the Mother of All Living wrapped like a shield the old woman sitting there, who was blackest of all black with age. They said, that the stone-seat she was sitting on floated in the air, never touching the ground, and that - the young woman did not bother to remember everything they said in whisper. All her thoughts were given to the help she was seeking. She raised her eyes to look at the cliffs, and the black crag opened its mouth, threateningly. Her heart turned cold, and she felt like throwing the basket away and running down the mountain, down, down, back home - to the safety of the village. Then the figure of the village’s Mother rose before her eyes, tall and magestic, chiding her firmly. Ashamed of her fear the young woman straightened her back and resumed her climb, decisively, toward the cave.
The sun, high in the sky, moved behind a protrusion in the cliff when she reached the black hole which was the entrance to the cave; it cast a cool shade that caused a shiver to run down the woman’s body. She stopped for a moment before she went inside. As she crossed the threshhold, a close sensation of secrecy enveloped her, preventing her from moving any further. The woman stood there, her eyes blinded by darkness after the bright light outside. Gradually, the blackness turned into gray, as the sun moved again and a faint light seeped in. Then, she was overpowered by a renewed fright as a picture arose before her eyes: rows and rows of pale gleaming skulls stretched on shelves along the walls; red ambers glowed in their eyes, their mouths gaped as black holes in a silent scream. The young woman, fixed to her place, was unable to move.
‘Mother, help me!’ she cried silently. A soft rustle, a light breath of air blew on her face from the inner parts of the cavern; in it she heard the comforting words, ‘Don’t be afraid, my child, don’t be afraid.’ Immense calm took hold of her, at last she felt at peace with her coming fate. She looked around, her eyes falling on a black lump in the center of the cave; looking closely, she discerned a stone seat, with the figure of a woman sitting motionlessly on it. That must be the prophettess, she thought. A continuous monotonous murmur issuing from the old crone, and the scent of incense rose in smoke from the stone dish at her foot. In front of the stone-seat stood a stone pillar, on top of which, the young woman knew, she must put her offering. With some hesitation she approached it, laying her basket on top of the burned remains of many previous gifts; she then knelt by it in a silent prayer.
The soft breeze was whispering all around her. A gust of wind rose suddenly from it, and she heard a burst of thunder coming from nowhere. The woman stayed put, her pacified mind holding her fast. A tongue of flame flew off the ceiling, straight at the top of the pillar. The woman held firm against her fear, drawing strength from her prayer. The flame licked the gift, consumed it and died down; then water started dripping from the walls, lapping the floor. The woman raised her head.
“Thank you, Mother,” she murmured, rose to her feet and with a light, unhurried step walked outside.
The group of young hunters continued their chase of the mountain-goat. They were trying to follow its tracks on the ground, while it seemed to appear everywhere before their eyes - sometimes on that peak, others on another... They were a noisy bunch, accompanying their running around with shouts and waving of spears, crying to the strange gods of the mountain to grant them a reward for their effort. The animal did not seem to notice them, running on and on as if leading them toward an unknown destiny.
The woman came out of the cave, walking away without looking back. She steppeddown the slope without stopping, until she came to where the path was evident again. There she dropped on a white slab of flat rock, sitting with her face turned to the sun. For a while she rested, looking down at the village nestling in the lap of green vegetation and brown, heavy soil. She was thinking, for the first time today, of her unborn child. She saw him in her mind’s eye, brown looking and healthy, running among rocks and bushes. Her heart went out to him but she did not worry any more, knowing that her offering had insured his life and safety. Nothing was going to happen to him under the protection of the Great Mother of the Mountain. No thought of her own safety had occurred to her.
The sun was hot now, the monotonous buzzing of insects generating a sense of lethargy. The woman had nothing to hurry down for. Lazily, she lay back on the rock, spreading her arms to receive the full glory of the sun. She closed her eyes, and, emotionally spent, she slept.
The hunters’ cries at some distance awakened the woman from her slumber. She opened her eyes but remained lying still; she did not want to meet anyone just now. Feeling safe under the Mother’s protection, there was no need for her to move, to rise, to go away.
The shouts drew nearer. Suddenly, she saw the big buck, its crescent horns piercing the blue sky. Before she could make a move it skipped right over her, its slim legs strong and sure over the rocks, never stumbling, never faltering for a moment. Then, spears came flying after it, whistling over her head. Some fell flat, some got stuck in the ground, one or two hit the goat with their hilts, springing off his strong back like so many pieces of straw.
One spear did not fly by. Its edge, a shiny, sharp flint stone, hit the woman in the side. The shock made her body jerk up to a sitting position, and she looked at herself with astonishment. A trickle of bright red blood started flowing from her side. She gave a sigh, fell back on the rock. The blood streamed down her glowing skin and sunk into the soft earth. Her eyes filled with tears and she closed them fast. A haze clouded her mind, she was sinking into deep water.
At first, the men did not notice the woman. They were gripped in the heat of the hunt, running after the animal, which was fast climbing the high cliffs, straight in the direction of the cave. Then one of them stumbled over her quivering body. He gave out a cry, part wonder, part joy.
“Look at what I have found! A live body, a good offering to Yahu! An omen!” The others came back running, gathering in awe around this chance, unexpected victim. The woman, her eyes shut, was still breathing, the blood flowing freely from her side.
She knew she was going, fast, her only thought was for the unborn child. ‘Help me, Mother!’ the words barely formed themselves in her mind. The pain flowed through her body, her skin lost its lustre, her limbs grew slack. Her eyelids still flittered, glittered in the sunshine. ‘Mother, my child...’ her thought trailed off...
The men stood around, undecisive. Some wanted to go on after the goat vanishing into a cave among the cliffs. Others thought the woman was a good enough catch, there was no need to go any further. Their shouts and screams pierced into the woman’s failing consciousness like sharp, blinding arrows of light in the darkness. Among their blurred faces she saw the gleaming skulls of the black cave, calling, beckoning. No longer frightening, representing generations of the village Mothers, protectresses of its people, they stretched out to her transparent arms. ‘Come, come, don’t be afraid!’ She would be very happy to go with them, but what about her child? She had no strength left in her body, but she still would not let go of life until she had had an answer...
At last, the men had reached a compromise: some would go after the animal while the others stayed by the woman’s side. Silence fell. The ones who had gone after the mountain goat vanished among the cliffs; the others sat on their haunch arround the prostrate woman. She was gasping quietly for breath, from time to time a shiver gripping her body. The men did not look at her but at the path where their friends had gone, their heartbeats marking time, while her gasps were getting fainter, fainter...
Fearful shouts broke the silence; the men sitting quietly around the woman jumped to their feet seizing their weapons, ready to fight. But no enemy appeared, only their companions rushing back at them from the chase after the mountain goat. There was terror in their eyes, tremor in their voices, they uttered screaming, confused words from pale lips.
With some effort, the remaining group was able to get their meaning. “A great big beast of a thing confronted us at the cave, a monster you’ve never laid eyes on! It spat fire at us, and the smoke blinded our eyes! We had to run for our lives!”
“But what about the animal?”
“Animal! We’re happy to be alive and you worry about some animal! We have our spoil here, this woman. This is a great gift for the great Yahu, spirit of the desert!”
But the woman’s gasps had stopped at last. The men looked at her, shaking their heads.
“This is no proper gift for Yahu,” they said; “she is dead!” “But, look at her!” the most enterprising hunter, the one who had pressed harder for chasing the mountain-goat and was the first to run away from the monstrous beast, was saying, “She has a child in her belly, it may still be alive. Let us take it out - this would be a very proper offering to Yahu!”
So it was done. The spears, which had missed their purpose with the mountain goat, were used for cutting free the live child from its dead mother’s body. He was screaming its first breath when they saw it was male, and the hills around were shattered to their cheers - “Ya - a - hu - u! Ya - a - hu - u! We have the right gift for Ya - a - hu - u!”
Still wrapped in his mother’s warm blood, the quivering new life was carried by his captors to their camp like a newly found treasure. So beautiful he seemed to them, he might even be adopted alive into their tribe, rather than beeing sacrificed to their blood-loving god.. .
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