[Book Extract] ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bee’ by Geoff Nelder
20,000 years before present in the Arabian Desert near the Red Sea. The previous day, Oqmar and his dog, Kur, witnessed a shiny sphere emerge from their cave floor, float up to the ceiling and make a hole then ascend up to the sky.
Shouting instructions to avoid the hole, Oqmar sent the eager Kur back into the cave. No wildcat screeched out of the entrance this time. He too, felt uneasy, last night when Hanra’s mad crone of a mother muttered incomprehensible incantations over a simmering evil-smelling pot while throwing him malevolent glares.
Now he looked above the hill and could just make out the spot of light ever moving upwards. The shiny orb that should have been his, its power – transferred to him – making him leader. He wore a twisted smile while ruefully imagining wild nights with the girls he could’ve had. That Emzeena, who had no sores, and Groch with those deep dark sultry eyes.
Kur barked a come-in call, so Oqmar followed his spear inside. The uneasiness remained, but tinged with expectation. Ah, that was probably it: he was picking up tomorrow. It often happened in advance of a storm; the hairs stood up on his neck. Even the curled black hair on his head made an effort to point up at the sky. Flashes of weird images would enter his head – white monkeys playing with sticks on fire; silver bulls charged around at a terrifying speed, their legs rushing so fast they were a blur.
Sometimes it wasn’t an impossible vision. He’d see the northern savages coming down into the village, so his people would be ready for them. If only he could see the mad schemes of Hanra and her mother.
The cool of the cave welcomed him. But the inner sanctum was all wrong. The ceiling had a circular vent lined up with the bottomless pit beneath. Oqmar’s vision blurred for a second, making him stagger. He held out his arms for balance being acutely aware to keep away from the void.
Kur yelped once, preferring to lie by the wall, watching the hole then up to the ceiling, for any further spherical apparitions.
“There’ll be no more, Kur. That magic orb was our chance and it has flown away.” Rubbing his face to calm himself he sat in his favourite corner, rummaged in his robe, and threw a chunk of cheese to Kur. It was particularly ripe, and with the sour wine, consciousness soon went for a walk for both man and beast.
Oqmar awoke in a cold sweat. Before he opened his eyes he detected a presence other than the ever-faithful Kur, whose snoring he could hear. As could the stranger no doubt. His heart doubled its drumming in spite of silent instructions to be still. Faking sleep he surreptitiously felt for his goat-crook and closed his hand around the comforting olivewood. Slowly he eased his eyelids open. No one there. He felt foolish, yet his instincts rarely disowned him.
His nervous system told him that something else shared the cave. More, he’d felt this presence before, or rather the aura disturbance that accompanied it.
Slowly he stood. “Kur, wake up you useless lump of shit.” A worried canine eye opened, followed by a nose in the air, sniffing for demons, and finding one. With a whine, Kur slunk off.
“That’s it, no more treats for you today. Don’t you know anything about loyalty?”
As Oqmar watched the shamed dog’s tail dragging the floor a tremor blurred his vision. He abruptly sat in the cave’s gritty sand, and held his head while squeezing his eyes shut. This was no ordinary tremor. Outside, he’d seen the sand grains dance waist high while he hung on to the nearest tree. His head hurt, but he heard Kur growl. Opening his eyes Oqmar knew why he’d had a premonition.
A stranger lay asleep on the floor on the other side of the sphere’s hole. He’d not seen a human with padded out flesh, and it was white. The stranger had an odd attachment on his face. His face was pale, like the belly of the snake Oqmar cooked last night. The man’s robes were strangely coloured. An elaborate green garment covered his upper body, not too dissimilar to his own rough shirt. Oqmar’s eyes widened when he noticed the stranger’s legs were wrapped in a blue cloth. His hands were white, and not just his palms. Maybe he’d been in a white clay bath like the hogs by the oasis. Oqmar was too afraid to get close in case this white monster awoke.
Oqmar should run. But by the Gods it was his cave. And hadn’t the sphere chosen his cave? It was the stranger who should leave.
His hair seemed to be made out of fine straw.
Oqmar, quivering, with his stomach yet again in a knot, moved around the hole while pointing his crook at the hair — perhaps it was a strange hat. By the Gods, the stranger had extraordinary coverings on his feet. Were they goatskin? They were whiter than his face.
Kur, behind Oqmar, growled again just as his master made the stick reach the hair on the stranger’s head. He gave it a flick with the intention of seeing if was really hair. The stranger awoke, screaming.
Oqmar fell back, and tripped over Kur, who yelped before running off. “Come back you coward.” Kur refused, but at least the stranger stopped screaming.
Struggling back onto his feet, Oqmar shouted in self-defence, “I was only checking your wrong hair!” He patted his own head and keeping the hole between them, pointed at the stranger’s hair. A thought hit Oqmar like a bolt of lightning. The stranger must be a Jinn! Out of the orb’s hole had arisen an evil spirit. Suppose it was here to stop the orb escaping, but too late, and now he’d be angry. He tore his attention from the Jinn to his only escape route. Fear tightened all his running-away muscles, although a working synapse told him escape would be futile. The fear won and he leapt for the cave’s entrance chamber, but Kur had returned and blocked the gap.
“Damn it, Kur,” he said, then turned when he heard a very human gasp. The stranger clutched at his arm. Only then did Oqmar notice a dark patch in the green cloth. The Jinn was hurt, therefore he was no Jinn.
Even so, Oqmar was reluctant to seek a deep friendship.
Oqmar peered at the stranger’s face. He needed to see into his eyes, to read the person within. But the decoration he had wedged on his nose with what looked like round clear crystals made seeing his eyes difficult. But what he did see was a greater fear than his own. Eyes behind the contraption darted about; and he watched beads of sweat emerging out of terrified skin. Oqmar’s confidence grew in proportion to the stranger’s discomfort.
He pulled himself upright as tall as he could, even then he was much shorter than this giant. Gripping his crook tighter, he strode around the hole to the feet of the weirdly dressed man. He’d not seen anyone with surplus body, nor with such odd robes. He must be from one of the southern tribes. He’d heard the rumour of white peoples in the mountains but hadn’t believed them.
“Are you from the mountains?”
The fleshy man frowned, but looked straight at Oqmar, and opened his mouth, revealing perfect white teeth. He uttered sounds, probably words but beyond Oqmar’s recognition.
Gibberish, thought Oqmar. He knew other far away villages had strange dialects but this one must have banged his head or had chewed too much dream root. The stranger rolled up the sleeve on his left arm. A cut oozed blood, proving his reality. Oqmar dug in his own robe pockets for the healing-plant leaves he always carried. In among the green furry cheese, he unfurled a browned leaf. He sucked up spittle in his mouth, spat on the leaf, and then held it out to the stranger, who shrank back.
“Good leaf. It will stop the bleeding,” said Oqmar. It was then he noticed the stranger’s fingers were not only whiter but also extraordinarily clean, and his fingernails had been bitten neatly. He looked at his own brown fingers — part his skin colour, part dirt. His broken yellow nails hardly compared either. Nevertheless, this clean man was bleeding, and if it weren’t stopped the buzz-flies would be a nuisance.
The stranger shook his head as if in disgust. Oqmar then knew this childlike man would have to be treated like a child, for his own good.
Oqmar called out, “Kur, tell me where you are?”
In the adjoining cave Kur barked making the stranger look over his right shoulder. Oqmar leaned over and pressed the leaf on the bloody cut.
The stranger shouted, making no sense to Oqmar, who’d held the leaf firmly in place, in spite of the ensuing struggle. Oqmar smiled to himself. In spite of his disadvantage in size, his strength was superior.
After a few moments he withdrew his hand, and to the stranger’s obvious disgust, spat again on the leaf and found a home for it in his robe. The young man examined the wound with one of his very clean fingers, but he didn’t seem pleased about it. Perhaps he remained worried about being lost.
Oqmar stood and then coughed for attention. He pointed at his own chest and said, “Oqmar, Oqmar.” Then he pointed at the stranger with one hand and held his other hand to his ear.
The stranger must have played this game before, because he nodded, and said, “Blake.”
Oqmar offered him a lump of his grey bread and a piece of cheese, but it was declined even when Oqmar gnawed off the worst of the fur. He squatted and made ready to nibble some himself.
Blake rummaged in his clothes and produced what looked like a stick wrapped in a leaf, but too neat. He peeled it to reveal a shiny thinner leaf, and offered Oqmar a thin pink stick. Without hesitation Oqmar took it and after seeing Blake do the same with another one, put it in his mouth.
“Gum,” Blake said, pulling it out and back in. Oqmar realised Blake was showing how gum was to be chewed and not swallowed.
Oqmar couldn’t believe how sweet it was. He’d eaten honey and sweet berries but they were sour in comparison. With his fingers he pulled at a corner and stretched it out of his mouth. He’d eaten entrails that he could pull but not like that. He sniffed at it, but didn’t recognise the odour. He chewed again; much of his food wasn’t easy to eat. Snake was chewy; birds often bony, and some insects wouldn’t stop wriggling even after swallowing. He again, took out the gum thinking it reminded him of the entrails of boiled white snake.
He looked at the grinning Blake who had both thumbs stuck in the air. Now the boy had shared food perhaps he’d exchange weapons. Oqmar found his old knife in his corner. The sharp flint had dulled but the boy might not notice. He passed it to him.
Blake looked puzzled, but placed it in his clothing. Then Blake’s face contorted with worry and he clutched at his right hip. His hands clutched at his garments but he snatched them away with the speed of scared bats. Through the blue cloth emerged a small shiny ball — a tiny version of the one that escaped Oqmar from this very cave.
As both Oqmar and Blake stared in shock and fear, the sphere hovered for a moment, and then shot up through the hole in the ceiling. Intuitively, Oqmar knew it was chasing the other sphere. On his back he lay on the floor with his head and shoulders overhanging the hole, and then looked up. Through the dark hole in the cave roof, he could see the sun glinting off both spheres making them look like stars. Then they were one.
Oqmar rubbed his eyes, but only blue sky remained to mock him. Two magic orbs he’d had within his grasp, and he’d lost both. A low growl from Kur, entering the main cave at last, made Oqmar glance over at Blake. Like the first sphere the man’s edges appeared blurred as if he was moving too rapidly for eyes to see clearly.
“Aaaaaaarrh!” Blake’s voice came through the air, but also shaky. Oqmar tentatively poked him with his crook proving there remained some substance there. Then after an increase in frenzied blurring, Blake vanished.
Kur barked once.
Oqmar and Kur raised their noses as they detected lingering whiffs of that metallic tang they’ve associated with thunderstorms when lightning strikes rocks.
“He must have been Jinn after all. They come and go, but usually in the Elders’ late night gatherings after a few potions. But he’s not here now, Kur, if he ever was. Come.” He held out his fingers, which Kur sniffed at and curled his lip.
“Ah, you smell Blake’s food on my fingers.” Oqmar snorted a laugh, but Kur didn’t seem pleased. He sniffed the air and then with nose to the sand, snuffled around to where Blake last existed.
Oqmar looked at the image he’d scratched and coloured, with burnt sticks and berries, of the sphere rising through the cave and out. He picked a sharp stone and added a stick figure of Blake. He added a large stomach while he laughed at the memory of the only plump person he’d ever seen. He added big feet and then a tiny circle for the baby sphere.
“What have you found? Ah, his unused sticks of gum. Look, Kur, at the patterned wrappings. I’ve never seen any leaves like this. Do you think Hanra would want it?” Kur snarled.
“Nor me. Should I hide it in Kardinuta’s supper? I suppose not. Let the wild cats find it.” He threw the gum packet onto the sand for the future.
(c) Geoff Nelder, 2008
About the author
Geoff Nelder has worked as a teacher, a freelance writer and a magazine editor. His books include the novels, Escaping Reality (Brambling Books, 2005), Hot Air (WUACADEMIA, ____) and Exit, Pursued by a Bee (Double Dragon Publishing, 2008).