The great fire-sickness had felled the white intruders in the space of fifteen moons. When Makito and his people stepped out of the jungle into the now deserted city, they had to stuff boar fat up their noses to keep out the odor of decaying bodies strewn everywhere through the streets. The corpses were open. Insects and other vermin had eaten their way to the insides the way the plague had eaten away the surface skin, leaving the faces of its victims bespattered with lesions and blood.
Word about the plague had earlier been brought to his village by means of talk-carriers who secretly watched from the outskirts of the city. After discussion with these traveling emissaries, the elders of his tribe proclaimed that no one need fear entering the white man’s town of stone; any lingering sickness would not go through their own tough, dark skins.
Makito, along with thirty other young, aspiring hunters and warriors, was thus entrusted to make the ten moons walk-time journey. For years, messengers and observers had brought news of great food and material stores in the city, which now might be theirs for the taking. If Makito and his group were successful, they could then rightfully take their place among the adult men of the tribe.
They walked along a flat, black road, staring in awe at the shiny animal-machines parked here and there along the way. Some were empty inside. In others, white-men bodies stained with fire-sickness blood slumped this way and that in the seats. The creature-machines that enclosed them were made out of something parrot-colored and hard, with massive legs, thick, black, and round, not muscular and thin like the loping jungle beasts, nor narrow, like the bumpy, hand-hewn wheels at the bottom of the carts they had brought with them on their journey here. They had heard of such things over the years from talk-carriers, but no one from Makito’s tribe had ever seen one or been in a white-man magic village before. These animal-machines were also now motionless and dead, like the men they once carried.
In going through the town, they encountered places that housed fruits, greens, nuts, beans, and meats, but all of it was rotted and crawling with bugs; none of it was useable anymore.
They did find many fine garments and cloths with textures that filled them with awe. There were also tools – some similar to the spears and knives of stone they themselves used, but smoother, shiny, and the color of rainwater. There were other implements too, though on many, they could not even guess at the use of them.
In one place, long, water-clear boxes were filled with sparkling stones for body adornment of a kind much different from the grey and white pebbles used for such things in their own village. These had many-sided surfaces that caught sparkles of shifting colors in their depth.
The young tribesmen made their way from one place to another, loading up their carts with anything that looked to be of use, of beauty, or of helpful, magical powers.
The sun was sliding down low in the sky when they came to the place of tree-high stone huts where the white men had lived and sheltered their families. These structures lined both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see.
Makito discussed with his group the wisdom of entering these abodes. Their carts and back-carriers were already loaded with more worldly goods than their tribe had ever seen together in one place.
They agreed they should enter at least one such structure, as no one, not even the talk carriers, had ever done so. There could perhaps be things within of greater value than what they’d already found. If nothing else, they would have grand tales to tell when they themselves were elders sitting around a fire, dispensing wisdom and lore to the young.
They walked up to and through the door of one, stepping around bodies thick with maggots and flies. They came to a skinny hill with steps in it and climbed to another, higher floor. There were doors all up and down on both sides, which they entered, one by one.
As seen in the other parts of the town, the dead littered every space, some on thick, raised sleeping pads or seats, others sprawled in twisted positions on the floor, as though they had suddenly fallen down dead when they stood or walked. Many of the goods encountered in these home-enclaves were of the type they had already earlier seen and gathered elsewhere in the city, but there were some new and wondrous things there as well.
They found many big white boxes full of cold that contained some food that was still good. There was much debate about whether or not it was safe to eat anything that had been in a magic box, and in the end, it was agreed that it would be more prudent not to risk even touching these.
They also wisely, quickly exited a living space in which they saw a big box with people moving around inside it and talking to each other, obviously trapped inside the thing by its magic.
Eventually, after going through many spaces of the dead in the white-man’s tree-high hut, they felt they had seen enough, and that it was time to head for home. The treasures they would return with would ensure them a rightful place as providers among their tribe.
As they made their way back through the city, they noticed, close to the outskirts of it, a long, rectangular building, not much higher than their home-huts. It sat squat against the backdrop of the setting sun, devoid of life, as was the rest of the city.
Throughout that day, they had sated themselves with looking, touching, and taking, and now only wanted to make good walk-time progress back toward home before night fell. They continued on past the structure, but almost as a single entity, stopped dead in their tracks, swung around and crouched, spears and knives at the ready, when they heard the door of the structure creak open. And then they saw something that stunned them down to the soles of their bare feet.
A child – a girl, no more than five season-turns old, with sun-colored hair, had stepped out of the building and was now standing by the door, looking at them.
Makito and his warriors stood straight again and exchanged surprised or puzzled looks with each other, then as a group, looked back at the girl. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and went back through the door into the building.
He selected two of his men and gestured to the rest to wait. He then walked up to the door of the building, weapon at the ready, in case this was some kind of trap. The door was ajar, so he used his spear to push it open wide enough to expose some of the inside. Not seeing any people, nor sensing danger, he signaled his two companions to follow, and stepped inside.
They found themselves in a single, long room with low seats and tables all through it, assorted, strange objects on shelves that lined one wall of the structure, crude drawings on the walls, and what looked like different foods scattered around on the tables. Some of the food was in cylinders with eating utensils in them. A strange looking, gray and black animal that looked like a skinny, miniature tiger, not much taller than their ankles, was lapping up spilled food off a wooden floor, but there were no people in the space.
They made their way to the other end of the room and heard a muffled whimper coming from below their feet. Makito saw a ring-shaped object attached to the floor, pulled on it, and like a door opening, a piece of the floor came up with it. The whimpering was now louder. A skinny hill with steps, of the type encountered in the tall, white-man living hut, descended down into a space dimly lit by faint, yellow light that flickered. Makito knew this was from fire.
He walked down the wooden hill, his two companions following him, and when he reached the bottom, it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the feebly lit space. He first saw that the light was coming from tiny flames on white, thick sticks placed at a few locations on the floor. There were shelves lining the room all around, containing big cylinders like the ones on the tables in the room above. Then he saw, at the far end of the room, a row of scared, dirty, wide-eyed children huddled together on the floor.
He took a step toward them, and the children cringed back against the wall. Some of them started to cry.
Makito, as did all the members of his tribe, had a great love of children. In his village, all the young ones were cared for, not just by their own parents, but by the tribe as a whole, who assumed group ownership and responsibility for them.
Makito had never seen a live white-man or white-man child before. Except for their flower-blossom skin and strange hair, they looked very much like the young of his own village. He could not understand why there were no elder-folk here to attend to them and keep watch over their safety. It did not even occur to him to wonder why they were not dead of the fire-sickness.