by Sean Eric Hower
The tribe is everything, I thought every time another headman returned from the longhouse to banish members of his or her lodge. A person without a tribe would die by accident, by design, or by desire, especially during a drought like the one we were experiencing. Already ten members of our tribe were gone, and with several headmen still in the longhouse including our own, it was likely that more would be thrown out.
“There goes the headman for the hunters,” I reported as she exited the longhouse and headed to the hunter’s lodge. I had given up any attempt at weaving. “I wonder who it will be for them.”
Sally shrugged, picked up one of the reeds we used to weave the large gathering baskets that our lodge made, and started chewing on the end. I hated her calmness.
“Well, I would think anyone who wasn’t pulling their own weight,” Alice said confidently. “Like Andy. When was the last time he came back with a kill?”
“It would be someone who everyone knows,” Nate explained with equal certainty. “Like Bruce.”
“He’s one of our best hunters,” I said. “He’s next in line to become headman of the hunter’s lodge. Everyone knows that.”
“But he’s always going around talking with people,” Nate said. “Martin was like that too and now he’s gone. If everyone knows you, then it’s a sure bet that the chief knows you. And if the chief knows you, you’ll be fresh on his mind when he starts banishing people. That’s why it’ll be Bruce. Best to stay out of the way and let other people get themselves thrown out.”
I got that old paranoid feeling as my mind started counting the number of times I had gone off to talk with someone. I didn’t like the numbers.
“But what about Jenny?” Alice said. “She never went around socializing like Bruce or Martin. But we all know her harvests were the smallest. They got rid of her a little while ago. See, it’s about how useful you are.”
I started to feel ill. I had been in this tribe for an entire season and I still hadn’t mastered the techniques that the tribe used to weave baskets. The headman had even commented on it recently.
Anxiously, I poked my head out of our lodge, craning my neck so that I could watch the hunter’s headman. She stood outside the hunter’s lodge for a moment then went in. My heart grumbled in my chest. I wished they would just get it over with and get to us. I wanted things to be normal again.
A few moments passed, then a low groan came from the hunter’s lodge that burst into a furious string of curses. Bruce burst out, as mad as I’ve ever seen anyone, dragging his stuff with him. Andy was right behind him.
“The both of them?” I asked to no one in particular.
Sally shrugged and continued munching on the reed. I guess she thought she was above all of this.
“Makes sense,” Alice and Nate said in unison.
But it didn’t make any sense. If Bruce could be thrown out, then none of us was safe. “I wonder if they’re going to throw anyone else out,” I said, but what I really meant was I wonder if I was going to be next.
I turned back to the longhouse. Our headman emerged. He looked grim and uncomfortable, like someone who had to do something he didn’t want to do.
“He’s coming,” I announced.
Nate sank deeper into the shadows and scrambled to collect up enough material to continue to assemble the basket he had been working on. Alice sat up straight and carefully began folding a handful of reeds into a strap. Sally shrugged, had herself a feline stretch, and casually went about her work.
There was an awful, cold silence that reached down inside of me and knotted my stomach. Then, I could hear the headman’s footfalls. Each crunch of gravel under his shoes sent sparks of panic into me. As his shadow took shape against the wall of the lodge my mind searched for any reason that I could offer as an excuse to change my fate. I would try harder. I would spend less time visiting. I had natural talent. I was eager. I was young. I’d do anything to stay.
My desperate need for salvation was suddenly struck down by a manic scramble to decide where I would go after I was thrown out. I tried to remember which tribes had been friendly, which had been dangerous, and which had been dysfunctional. I looked around the lodge for completed baskets I could take along with me as proof of the skills I had learned.
“Well,” our headman said. He was standing at the entrance now. We all watched him as he came in and sat cross-legged in the center of the lodge. “As you probably know, there are some changes in the works. Another tribe is going to be joining ours. They’re from the steppe up north. They’re part of a group that has decided to come down out of the mountains and they’ll be bringing their horses with them. We’ve all heard of these highland people sacking villages like ours. Heck, they hit us just last season. They’ll teach us their ways of fighting on horseback and we’ll teach them our ways of raising crops. Together, our two tribes will grow strong and prosper. It will be a good thing for everyone here.
“It won’t be easy though. It’s going to require that everyone give one hundred and ten per cent. We’re all going to have to start thinking outside of the basket. Unfortunately there are a few who aren’t going to be a match for this new direction, and it’s better that the tribe allow these people to find another village. It’s really the best thing for everyone.”
Best thing? I didn’t like it and I’m sure aside from Sally no one else liked it either. Why couldn’t he just get it over with and tell me to pack up my things?
“Well, this isn’t coming from me. It’s from the chief and it’s really out of my hands. I tried to argue that this tribe needs all of its weavers, but he’s convinced that we can do the same amount of work with fewer people. That’s why, well, that’s why he thinks that Alice is no longer a fit.”
“Alice?” I said. I couldn’t tell if I was surprised or happy.
“Me?! Why me? I’m the best weaver here. I’ve been a weaver for ten years. I taught everyone our techniques. Please don’t banish me. I’ll be dead by winter, frozen until spring thaw.”
“The chief feels that you’ve grown as much as you can here and that your extensive experience as a weaver will cloud your ability to adapt to the new direction.”
“What about what we talked about? What about becoming headman?”
“What?” Nate and I said. Even Sally raised an eyebrow.
“Out of my hands,” the headman said. “Can you gather up your things?”
Alice was struggling to keep herself from breaking into tears. “Yeah, maybe I can grow more in a different tribe. Maybe I can pick up a new skill or two.” No one, even Alice, was convinced.
“That’s the idea,” the headman offered.
We watched as Alice gathered the bits of personality she had used to adorn her area of the lodge. “Well, it was great knowing you all.” She shook Nate’s hand. “We should keep in touch.” She shook Sally’s hand. “No need to forget each other just because we’re not in the same tribe any more, right?” She shook my hand.
“Sure,” I said, but I doubted it. Once you were out of the tribe, you were dead to those that remained.
Alice shook the headman’s hand.
“You were good tribe member,” the headman said. “You’ll find another tribe soon.”
Alice nodded. She looked over all of us. I gave her a nervous smile, Nate looked away, and Sally just gave her the thumbs up. Then, Alice left the lodge.
I watched her trudge through the village, head held high and proud. When she reached the southern trail, she looked back. She was pale and weathered, as though years had passed during that walk. She started down the path and in a few more moments I couldn’t tell her from the trees.
“Well,” the headman said. “The rest of us have a lot to do. With Alice gone, we’re going to have to work a little harder. I hear the horsemen are bringing in their own weaver. I want you,” he pointed at me, “to take the lead on that.”
“Sure thing,” I said. I wondered what the new weaver would be like. I wondered if he would do his part, or talk too much, or be so good that the next time they banished people I’d be the one leaving. I hate droughts, because the only thing that is ever certain during a dry spell is the importance of your tribe.
Copyright © 2004 by Sean Eric Hower