Botoso was singing some innocent rhyme about the horrors of the great change at the top of his lungs. It was a new phase, and Lara was fervently hoping that it would pass as quickly as the rest had.
It seemed only last week that the little five-year-old had contented himself with running around inside the stockade, happy to let his universe be defined by the log walls. But, suddenly, he’d become obsessed with the world outside.
First, he’d gone through a period of curiosity about the Pale Ones, never going to bed unless he’d first been told a story about them, and the things that had happened during the change. He’d cover his head and pretend to be terrified, but never had nightmares, and always came back for more.
Then, seemingly simultaneously, every little one in the village had begun to sing the songs that their parents had sung. Songs about the Pale Ones, songs about the change. It was incredible how these songs, that had been buried for years, reemerged all at once. Nonsense songs, but their verses contained references to the horror of the times.
Lara noted that her son was looking at her quizzically. But he was silent at last, which was a relief. She could get back to mending the shirt.
“Mama,” his thin voice piped up. “Do you think I could be the headman, someday?”
“Of course, dear,” she replied absently.
“Just like Simao Zaboba?”
He wandered off, and she breathed a small sigh of relief. There were clothes to mend, thatching to do. And he could be a demanding child sometimes.
He’d done this for all of his adult life. His predecessors had done the same. It was as natural as life on the veldt. It had been part of the cycle of life, even before the great change, and would be part of it after the Pale Ones were a faded memory.
Simao Zaboba was at peace with himself, with the bright noon sun and the fresh June breeze whispering through the trees. He knew enough to be thankful for his role in the natural cycle. Twice a month, the offering was made. Twice a month, it was accepted. A pig on the full moon, valued for its brains. A goat on the new moon, desired for its blood and safety, even a measure of protection, for the village all month long.
It had always been thus. Although, in the times of his grandfather the offering of a chicken or a cow were made on a less regular basis, to other less tangible spirits. But even those sporadic devotions must have had some effect since the village had survived nearly unscathed. While others. Well, others had been absorbed into the nests.
Today, he was leading a well-fed goat on a leash of metallic rope, enjoying the three-hour walk to the neutral zone across the river. Today was a clear day, and he could see forever. But he knew that he would never see one of the Pale Ones during the day. Like all spirits that had once been day-walking humans, they were nocturnal creatures.
The bridge was a rickety affair, long poles lashed together with vines. His father had told him that the Cunene had once been bridged by dozens of concrete structures designed to last for generations. But these had been torn down in a desperate, failed attempt to stop the plague from spreading north to Angola. The village had avoided the change only because it was so far off the beaten path. By the time they’d been rediscovered, the Pale Ones had evolved and had even reached the point where they could be reasoned with. Spirits were like that.
As they approached the neutral zone, the goat began to resist the gentle pull of the rope. It seemed to sense, somehow, that hundreds of its brothers and sisters had perished very nearby. Close enough that the smell of death was still present.
Or maybe it sensed something else. Something hungry.
Simao was unconcerned. He dragged the now openly resisting, panic-stricken animal towards the clearing the way he’d done hundreds of times before. The stained ground and scattered bones seemed to give the animal added strength, and it left four furrows in the dust as its feet slid along.
He reached the tree and looped the end of the metallic rope around the trunk. As always, he double-checked the clasp; the consequences of the goat escaping were too ugly to contemplate.
Leaving the grunting goat straining against the unbreakable rope, Simao walked, as he’d done countless times before, back towards the village.
He wasn’t expecting to see little Botoso crouching behind one of the bushes, because he’d never been there before. And that was probably why he didn’t.
Botoso knew he was in trouble. He had no idea how in the world he was ever going to get back to the village. He had no idea where the village was. This was the first time he’d ever been outside the stockade without his mother or one of the other village adults to take care of him, and the sun was setting redly over the horizon.
But he wasn’t frightened. He told himself that a future headman would never be frightened just because night was about to fall. He would laugh the night off and keep walking until he found the river. He knew the river was near his village. He also knew that he would make a great headman someday.
After Simao Zaboba had left the clearing far behind, Botoso emerged from hiding and saw that the headman had forgotten the goat. The boy knew how important goats were to the village. He was old enough to know that the village’s very survival depended on the supply of goats.
So, he worked at the clasp tying the goat to the tree and began his walk back the way he’d come. At some points, it was difficult to decide which way he had to go since one patch of low grass or clump of trees looked just like the next. He wasn’t worried, though. A headman would never get lost.
But he did.
Now, the sun was all the way down and it was hard to see where he was going. The goat, sniffing the air, had been getting more and more restless. Suddenly, it gave a mighty jerk and broke free of Botoso’s five-year-old grasp, dragging the leash off into the darkness.
Botoso gave chase, following the tinkling of the metallic cord until an unseen hole in the ground sent him tumbling onto a patch of thorns. He lay there silently, listening to the tinkling which grew fainter. And fainter. Until it died out. The night suddenly came alive with scurrying and wildlife sounds. He knew that some of those sounds weren’t alive.
He told himself that he wasn’t afraid, but the tears that streamed down his face seemed unaware of it.
Lara was frantic. She’d been waiting for Simao Zaboba outside the village ever since she realized Botoso was missing. Now, from afar she could make out a dark, tiny speck coming towards the village from the south. She knew, she had to believe, that the speck, as it grew nearer, would resolve itself into two figures. A large, thin one. And a slightly rotund smaller speck, less than half the height of the first.
As the speck grew into a smudge, her hope waned. But then she rallied. The headman probably made Botoso walk behind him, as a punishment. That’s why she could only make out one figure approaching in the afternoon glow.
But even that hope soon faded. She ran out to Zaboba, stood before him, clutched his arm and wept. She finally got her breath back and panted,
“Did you see Botoso?”
The headman looked her over, perfectly still, his impassive gaze showing no emotion.
“There was no one on the path. How long has he been gone?”
She hung her head.
“I’m not really certain. I looked for him to eat the midday meal, and he was nowhere to be found. We looked all over the village.”
Lara fought back tears, desperate, her nails digging into his motionless forearm.
Zaboba looked at her knowingly.
She felt that he could see through her, that he knew her deepest secrets, that he knew she was holding back.
Finally, she could hold back no longer.
“I think he followed you,” she sobbed.
“This is grave news,” Simao said. “Go gather the elders.” He pushed her gently towards the village and walked slowly after her as she ran, stumbling, to do his bidding.
Other than Simao Zaboba, there were four village elders. They all looked gravely on as she explained her plight.
Satumbo, a toothless old man, by far the oldest man in the village, broke the silence.
“A boy lost in the night is a job for the father,” he said.
“My husband is dead.” Lara wept
“The uncle, then.”
“He had no brothers.”
“Then the boy is lost. The village cannot risk the men we have. No wife will let her man go. There is no way we can defend ourselves from the Pale Ones outside our walls in the night. The night belongs to them, and if we violate that agreement, we forfeit our lives.”
Simao Zaboba rose from his seat. “I will go,” he said. “I know where the boy is. The mother must come as well. She will have a choice to make.”
Nothing was more important to her than her son, but what Satumbo said was true—the night belonged to the Pale Ones. She imagined herself being torn to shreds, her bones cracked for their marrow, her blood drained from her body, her brain sucked from her skull through a hole in the top of her head. But then the image in her mind changed, and she saw Botoso there in her place.
“I’ll go,” she said.
“You will go alone,” Satumbo replied. “Simao is much too valuable to the village.”
“No, I am not.” Simao argued. “I am just a silly old man whose only value to the rest is that he leads a goat to a dangerous place once a fortnight. Besides, I will certainly return tonight. I speak the language of the Pale Ones.”
“The Pale Ones will kill you when they see you.” Satumbo countered.
“It may be so, but I don’t think so. They have changed since your childhood. And even since mine. I will be all right.”
Simao turned to the still-open gates of the village, retracing the steps he’d taken to return to the village that afternoon. He didn’t look back to see whether Lara followed him or not.
And he didn’t seem at all surprised when she appeared beside him. Only Lara knew that she almost hadn’t come. Only she noticed that no matter how confident the headman had been of his own return, he’d said nothing about her.
It was a typical night. The veldt was cool. The sounds were louder than they were inside the village compound. That was ridiculous, of course. The open-topped wall of logs wouldn’t have done much to filter the sounds of the nocturnal animals. The hoot of an owl. The scurrying of rodents. The buzz of insects. But it still seemed that the sounds were louder out here without the wall.
They’d been walking for two and a half hours. Their way illuminated only by the starlight and the knowledge of Simao’s feet which had tread this same path for thirty years. At first, Lara constantly called out for Botoso. But as they neared the bridge, Simao Zaboba hushed her. Sound carried a long way on these grassy plains, and soon the sound would carry all the way to the nest.
He didn’t know where the nest was located exactly, but he suspected that it was just a little beyond the clearing in the neutral zone. A clearing that was less than half an hour away on foot.
The night sounds seemed to get louder and louder the farther they got from the village; as if the animals, far from the noise and smell of human habitation, grew bolder. But Simao knew it had less to do with the actual noise than the fact that he was listening harder. Trying to distinguish the sounds that didn’t belong to the night. The sounds that meant that there was a something out there walking noisily on its two hind legs. Something that hadn’t been designed to prowl in the darkness, despite having originated near these very same plains millions of years before.
Something that, despite not being human, would have the arrogance and fearlessness that had, until the great change, allowed humans to walk the night knowing that no matter how much noise they made, no matter what they stirred up, it could be dealt with.
Nowadays, with the few surviving humans huddling behind thick walls or in underground bunkers as soon as the sun went down, only the Pale Ones walked the night that way. They could be easily heard by someone who knew what to listen for. And it wasn’t long before Simao Zaboba distinguished the telltale sounds. His heart sank when he realized that the noise of multiple Pale Ones milling around was coming from the clearing where he’d left the goat that afternoon. It came from their destination.
He looked over at Lara, but she seemed lost in her own thoughts and not to have heard anything out of the ordinary. Her features were set, and she was grimly putting one foot in front of the other. She thought that he would know where to look.
She was right. He knew exactly where the little boy would be, but he dreaded what they’d find once they got there. He hoped that they would be intercepted before they arrived, dreading each step. Soon, his fear grew to the point where he was reluctantly putting one foot in front of the other. By the time they were a hundred paces from the clearing, Lara was dragging him along.
Even in the dark, he could tell the clearing was crowded. Darker shapes could be made out in the darkness, and Simao Zaboba felt someone running cold hands up his spine.
“Welcome,” a voice said out of the darkness in front of him.
Lara jumped, but Simao had known it was coming. The word had been spoken in their harsh guttural language, the language that the villagers feared and reviled. They called it Palespeak. The Pale Ones themselves called it English – it had been the tongue of the southern land before the change. Only the headman and a few others could speak it.
The voice went on, “We suspected you come soon.”
It was a ragged, sighing voice – as if it had been unused for so long that it had to be dug up from deep within the Pale One’s thorax. Yet, the speech was clearer than what he’d heard when, as an apprentice, he’d accompanied the old headman to make the agreement that exchanged an occasional goat and pig for their lives. During that meeting, the Pale Ones had spoken in grunts and single, almost incomprehensible words – and it had been impossible for them to understand any but the most rudimentary concepts.
Simao knew that how he responded could make the difference between life and death, but he also needed to understand the situation a little better. “I make fire to see,” he said, glad he’d practised his Palespeak all these years, despite never having had to use it.
His pronouncement was met with hissing and an unseen step forward from his right.
Zaboba tensed, but the original voice replied before any action was taken against him.
“Small fire,” it said.
“Small fire,” Zaboba agreed.
One of his precious, irreplaceable matches was used to light a torch.
The clearing was bathed in flickering yellow light. The Pale Ones looked much worse for the wear. Nothing with skin as tattered and decomposed as the inhabitants of this clearing had any business being animate. Their once-mahogany skin, already pallid from the change, had become even more gray with the years. They looked like dolls made of stained rags.
Zaboba looked around desperately, searching for a smaller figure. His gaze was attracted by a commotion behind the nearest Pale One.
“Mama!” a high-pitched voice screamed, and suddenly a small brown bullet shot from the shadows and buried itself in Lara’s stomach. She cried and bent over to hug him, protecting him with her arms.
“Thank you, thank you,” she was saying, to no one in particular, without thinking about it, just repeating the mantra – happiness and disbelief mixed.
“Thank you,” Zaboba told the Pale One in front of him.
The other acknowledged, inclining his head. “We no eat little ones. Little ones grow, turn big ones. Bring us food. Other nests eat little ones, eat big ones too. Other nests die out. No food.”
Zaboba was shocked at this. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, couldn’t believe the sophistication of the Pale One’s thought processes. But he had no time to dwell on it then.
“We leave now,” he said, bowing.
Zaboba realized that the semicircle of Pale Ones in front of them had expanded, and was now a complete circle, ahead and behind. They could not leave unless they were allowed to. There was no way they could break through that line unscathed – and even a scratch meant the end of human life, and the beginning of a twilight existence as a Pale One. He turned calmly back to the spokesman.
“We no have food,” the Pale One said.
And suddenly, Zaboba lost his calm. He understood that what had been his worst fear, in the back of his mind, had actually come to pass. He knelt beside little Botoso and, trying to keep the fear and urgency from his voice, asked, “Where’s the goat?”
Botoso, sensing the fear, began to cry. “It ran away. I tried to catch it, but I fell.” And, finally, accusingly, “You forgot the goat.” Zaboba turned back to the Pale one.
“We no have food,” it repeated. “Give food.”
Lara turned to him, eyes wide, understanding. She seemed on the verge of panic, so he calmed her down.
“Do not worry,” he said. “I will stay. I am an old man, almost fifty summers. The village does not lose much.”
Gratitude flashed on her face but was almost immediately replaced by doubt and then fear.
“But how will I find my way? It is still a long time until dawn. What happens if we get lost?” Lara panicked
“You must not become lost.”
“If you get lost, you will both die.” He cursed the moonless sky.
Even the small illumination from the barest crescent might have made the return trip possible.
“Once you leave the neutral area, you are fair game unless you are on a clearly defined path towards the village. If you are anywhere else, other members of the nest will take you, since they have no way of knowing you are from our village.” He said
And Lara knew it. She cried softly, silently, as she accepted what she must do. Botoso, who had lifted his head to see what was troubling his mother, suddenly crying again as he found himself transferred to Simao’s care.
Simao took a tight grip of Botoso’s hand. He knew the boy would have to be kept in check.
“Will you take care of him?” Lara asked.
“What will become of him, an orphan? His options will be few.”
“His options,” he replied, “will be one. He has seen the Pale Ones, and it seems he will survive the encounter. He will be headman. I will take him on as an apprentice.”
Pride flickered across her face but lasted only a fleeting instant. She had remembered that she would not be there to see it.
“Tell them,” Lara said.
“One will remain,” Simao told the leader of the Pale Ones, who nodded in reply.
A rustling sound behind caused Simao to turn. The Pale Ones behind had disappeared.
“Ones who go, go now.”
Simao Zaboba took a tight grip on Botoso’s hand and began to walk towards the village. At first, Botoso came readily but then realized what was happening.
“Mama!” he said.
But it was too late by then. The circle had reformed, with them on the outside. The headman dragged the resisting boy towards the village. He was even thankful for the boy’s calls for his mother, as they somewhat drowned out the screaming. At first, a single cry of protest, then a series of long, drawn-out screams of agony which grew hoarser and hoarser. The final scream was a ragged cry, mercifully cut off in the middle.
The boy seemed to understand; his struggles stopped.
But the sick feeling in Simao Zaboba’s stomach wasn’t caused by the sounds of a pretty young mother being torn to edible chunks behind them. It was caused by the knowledge that the Pale Ones had, in their way, discovered farming – or at least a way to get small but sufficient quantities of live food without having to hunt for it. At present, they needed the village to supply their meat, but how long would it take them to figure it out for themselves?
After that, the village would serve no purpose other than as a breeding ground for their favorite dish – or, worse, the site of one spectacular nighttime binge.
His reverie was broken by a slurping and panting noise from the feeding ground behind. He shuddered and hoped it would fade soon.
But sound carries a long way over the veldt.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages, and is a winner in the National Space Society’s “Return to Luna” Contest and the Marooned Award for Flash Fiction (2008). His latest books are The Malakiad (2018) and Incursion (2017). He has also published two science fiction novels: Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).