The strangers came over the mountain paths and now there were only groups of them, tall, bearded, and very black, their bodies hairy and the bodies of their women hairy so when at first the lowland people saw them, it was hard to tell the women from the men. The lowlands were green at this time of year and the streams were full of water and fish. The mountains were thawing after the winter snows and each day when the people looked, it seemed they could see the snow level creeping or really receding up the sides of the mountains, shrinking under the sun that warmed everything, that started the lowland people thinking again about good hard work, fishing and hunting, women, building new dwellings, and they got together late at night and built huge bonfires at this time of year and baked a pig in each bonfire or maybe two, a goat, a cow, depending on how good and how warm they felt. The stars were bright and the moon glowed down and made the valleys look fresh and cool, the grass soft, the trees unreal, filling the people too with a sort of glow and the touch of them, a man and woman, good again, new again, and a glance and a sparkling or soft eye held so much now again; and except for the strangers who came down the mountains in small black groups everything was fine, at this, the finest time of the long year.
And they came down, their only weapons spears and clubs, and took shelter in the thick forests by the foothills, building crude lean-tos.
When the black hunters and the lowland hunters met, as was inevitable, occasionally, they said nothing, holding their weapons casually, and walked away from each other. So far there had been no arguments over land or game, but the wiser ones, who sat on small stools in front of their huts, making figures in the dust, repeatedly stated that someday fighting would break out and death would march into the valley. The men listened and didnt like what they heard. They sent Ti Ali to spy on the black people.
Ti Ali was the fastest runner in the valley and also one of the best shots with bow and arrow. He didnt know what he was supposed to find out, but he did what he was told, although it was difficult, since the black people were always alert and he could never get too close but sometimes sneaked up at nighttime until he could see them dancing around their fires; they danced in pairs, man and woman, and the dances started fast and they seldom touched until the night drew late and cold; when their motions became sluggish, almost stilted, jerky, and they held their bodies close together and after a while, pair by pair, they melted off, and the fire laid down and smouldered like a red eye. After a week of fitful watching, Ti Ali went back to his people, no wiser than before.
“How many are there?” they asked him.
“Quite a few,” he said.
“But what number?”
“I dont know,” he confessed.
They glared at him.
“Do they plan war?”
“I dont know. I never saw them planning anything.”
“Do they look peaceful, then?”
He hesitated, remembering their dances. “No, not peaceful.”
“Then they are warlike?”
“I dont know,” he said.
That stumped him.
“I guess I didnt watch long enough,” he said.
They sent him back to spy some more.
This time Ti Ali was determined to learn something. The black people he firmly believed now to be a menace, and it was more than a duty, a necessity, to learn as much about them as possible. He moved quickly through the forests. It was night, and black, and he had a vague fear of the darkness that held no stars, no moon, where whispered no sound except the sough of the wind and a sudden scurry of animals. When he was close to the black encampment, he could hear their fire, a low roar, and the light patter of their drums which beat as lightly as the dancing feet. He crawled up as near as he dared and started counting the men and woman. They whirled by, not touching, with flung-back heads, tossing arms. He counted. They kept coming by, and after a while he wondered if he were counting some of them twice. The light from the fire cast fitful shadows into the black eyes of the forest. There was a red glow thrown on the trees and the dancers, and the drummers, who were old men and women, glowed faintly too, and he could see the fuzzy outline of the glow in their hairy bodies. The old men had thin legs land beat on the drums with bones the same size and approximate shape as their skinny arms. The old women were either fat with pendulous breasts that flopped in rhythm on their bellies or skinny like the men, sexless. He could not see the dancers too clearly. He gave up counting. Perhaps he could count them in the morning as they awoke and then still get away from their camp before the hunters went out and spotted him. He did not want to get caught. He had no idea what they would do to him. He had feelings about their dancing. Perhaps they would make him dance and their bodies would touch him.
He began to feel a chill and the dancing began to slow. A woman lifted her arms and a man with his arms loose at his sides moved close so they were touching. They swayed drunkenly. The shadows from the fire swayed. The trees seemed to sway as the light bent and swayed in time to the dancing figures. The forest was alive with movement.
Ti Ali crawled closer until he was at the edge of the clearing at the center of which was the fire. Scattered about, around the edge of the area, were the lean-tos, faced away from the light so they were pockets of blackness. They were empty except for children who could sometimes be seen stirring and bright-faced staring at the scene. The fire cracked. Sparks festered the air. The silence was filled with low moans that somehow seemed soundless. Ti Ali watched the drummers and counted them. He counted them three times and got three different totals. He counted the lean-tos, using his fingers, but got confused when he had to use a finger more than once. He started counting the dancers, now that they were slower, and then he counted his fingers, his toes, put his hands at his eyes, touched his arms, one, two, and, feeling hot and uncomfortable in the cold air, turned over on his back and tried to stare at a sky he could not see.
After a while the dance ended. He heard the drums slow. There were murmuring noises. He turned over and looked, and the dancers had paired off, and were moving off, and the fire was staring at him. Ti Ali saw the couples go off into the forest.
Ti Ali at first determined to remain where he was, next to their camp, and spy on them in the early morning. But then the ground grew cold, and the air damp, as if it were winter, and he had no furs to pull around himself. He could feel the coldness of the mountains far away. The trees turned white to his eyes with a kind of frost, and he felt the tugging of panic, there seemed to be witchcraft and death in the air. The fire was almost dead now, and looked at him as he backed away, showering the air with sparks. He crawled backwards. When he thought he was a safe distance from the quiet circle of lean-tos, he rose, and began walking rapidly back towards his village. It was hard to walk in the forest in the black night; the trees he could see only when close and they loomed up suddenly; night animals he could hear distantly rumbling in the underbrush.
Ti Ali thought of a hut and a warm safety; of good food and a soft place to sleep. In the coldness the trees confronted him and he hurriedly sidestepped them and went on; and in a moment there faced him in sudden nearness something that was not a tree.
Ti Ali stopped and the other two stopped also.
“Who are you,” whispered Ti Ali. “What are you doing here.”
“This sounds like the voice of a white boy,” said one dark figure, who did not whisper, but let his own voice crash loudly. Ti Ali turned to dart away, the fastest runner of his people, a good bow shot, who always brought down game when game was needed, and who led a happy life well liked by almost everyone. The black figure moved too, the one who had spoke, and in the few seconds as Ti Ali was gathering his feet and trying to guess the location of trees, in the blackness, the black hand he felt on his arm with a grip that felt solid and strong. Moving already, with lightness, he was almost lifted off the ground so suddenly he stopped. The hand kept him from falling. His heels dragged along the ground. Then he was suddenly upright and the two black figures were facing him, so close he could hear their breaths, and smell their sweat, over his own. The second figure laughed and this was a woman by her voice. The forest was quiet now and Ti Ali could not move. His feet had not saved him. He felt a terrible disaster was falling upon him, him personally. He was so empty and weak he did not try to run even when the other let go of him.
“A child,” said the woman.
“No,” boomed the other, “a man, if a little one.”
And Ti Ali was not little, almost as big as the man in front of him; but at that moment he felt little, a child as the woman said, and in the darkness which surrounded him he longed for the safety of childhood and the smell of his mother warm and hovering over him; and the touch of her warm and big, like the grasp of a warm day, full of safety which filled him, unlike the night, where these two had him, black like the night and hairy, unseen except for the looming of their shapes and the sparkle as they spoke of their teeth and the whites of their eyes. "What you been doing out here, boy, watchin on us?" Ti Ali listened. He was faint. His brain ran along in one direction, reversed, and was going three different ways at once; he wanted to run, he wanted to fall to his knees, to beat the man with his fists. “Boy? You hear us? You spy on us wont do you no good. We’re better than you, boy, fewer but stronger. We got the feeling, we got the way, we got the light, and we got these forests where we live. We got you too, boy, shiverin as you are, lost in these trees.” Their voices registered on him. He could see their teeth like fireflies glittering and gnashing. The woman moved up and she touched him her touch much like the man’s. Ti Ali fell to the ground. The woman knelt beside him. “Get down on the ground,” said the man. “You safe there, crawling. We stand up, you can sit down, lay down, or fall if you wont get down otherwise, we’ll knock you down.” The shadow leaned forward. The voice quietened. “We got the light, brother-on-the-ground, we got the way, we got the feeling, we going to win, boy, we got this place sewed up.” Ti Ali felt the woman touching him. He was lying on his belly and her hand was on his shoulder. She seemed to be saying, with just that touch, imparting to him the words, “Dont pay him no attention. He’s a talker. He talks on and on like this. You just be quiet and be good.” Ti Ali was quiet and he was good. He did not move.
“Boy, you is just going to lay there? You is just gonna give up and die? Are you dead already?”
The woman stroked his back and seemed to say, “Just pay him no mind. Just lay there. You not dead yet. Dont argue with him and he'll just get tired and walk away.” That hand went stroking warm and smooth and hairless on his hairless back. He could feel now her flank against his side as she knelt there and for a moment this frightened him, because of the soft fur on her leg; but the pressure behind it was real and soft and warm. He was afraid only that the man would not walk away like the hand said; he was not afraid of death for in that moment he did not think of death, except as perhaps lying in the man, death in his darkness, in the flash of his teeth, afraid more of his helplessness and what he thought the man would do now to him, to his body, and the pain he could feel.
The man’s foot nudged him.
“You dead now, boy? You lying there dead now?”
“He dead to you,” said the woman in a voice close to his ear.
“Is he dead to the light and the way?”
“He dead to all that,” said the woman, stroking his back.
“He dead to good food and good women?”
“He dead to that too.”
“He dead to everything worthwhile,” mused the man. “Them trees not that dead.”
“He not built like no tree,” said the woman.
“No,” said the man, “he not built like much of anything.”
There was a long time of silence and of a hand; of the dark forests and the cold night and the warm, soft stroke of a hand.
Ti Ali turned over on his back.
“You all right now?” the woman said.
“Is he gone?” he said.
“He’s not here," she said.
Her teeth were there above him. Her body was there above leaning over him. There was a faint light in the air, perhaps from the dawn, and he thought he could see her face, which was hairless, and her lips over her teeth, her shoulders there covered with fur black and short; her breasts with less hair so her skin shone through brown and gleaming; or perhaps it was as dark as ever and he saw her in his mind, she cast a spell, a taunting note, her hand on his belly now and his side and she put her knee between his legs, between his thighs, so there was warmth there too.
“How many are you?” Ti Ali said.
“One,” she said. “Me.”
“One.” He counted her off on a finger. “Just you.”
She lay down on top of him.
“I’s cold,” she said, “and I not bring any fur except the fur on my body.”
And he felt her fur and it was soft and nestled her body close and warm, her long belly and thighs firm until they were almost hard. He no longer felt her hands in the confusion of feeling her. He wasnt sure if he could see her now her black hair perhaps before his eyes; or her cheek on his, smooth, a lip, a feeling of teeth, on his ear; and in the hard, beating night he could feel her hard body beating in a kind of rhythm; a heartbeat infusing her body infusing now his also, her whole body moving perhaps, rolling on his, or perhaps just her heart and her blood; and his heart and his blood; and the night, heartless, bloodless, with a kind of beat, like an animal. A tangled flock of hair was in his hand. On his own breast he felt hers with a painful warmth that welded soft to his. She wobbled and dug at him and he began to dig at her, with his body, his hands, and a kind of agony filled him, her hands on his hips, pulling at him. He felt the night cutting his eyes. Whiteness washed in front of him and he could with suddenly clarity see her face, the rolling eyes, the trace of a moustache above her lips, which were red and open below a flat and flaring nose, and the inside of her mouth where was her tongue and the black gulf behind her teeth which flashed and cut at him; the sound, the sound, of a trumpeting day, like the clashing of horns, perhaps a buzzing in his head. God! He opened his mouth and her hair was there black and long. He spit it out and twisted, and she let out a barbaric whoop, flying away from him, big, like an animal too with a flaring mouth and the sudden snarl of her eyes. He rolled over the ground away from her, and with each roll saw her, vacant from his body, standing, hands held in front as if pointing at him; with each roll he saw her and she was laughing; with each roll, away from her, he saw her white teeth that were like the man's, and the whiteness of her eyes; until he rolled to a stop he could see the blackness of her fur on her black or perhaps brown body.
He rolled to a stop against ankles and legs.
And, looking up, he saw the man, and the man was grinning too.
NOTES: I wrote this story when I was 17 or 18, I believe. It is easy enough for me to see myself then, a boy oppressed by what he saw as a stultifying town where anything new—and especially anything erotic—was forbidden and frightening. But of course this is an interior issue, isnt it? It is the fear, and the oppression, within us that we need to escape...which the boy did by beginning his travels, wandering for years through new worlds...