His eyes are violent in a way I have never seen.
Men flank me on both sides. The muscles that bulge from their chest and arms are wider than my torso. Loin cloths do little to hide their manhood. Their feet leave prints in soil as wide as mammoth’s.
“You?” speaks the man with the eyes. He faces me at the end of the procession. His word isn’t intended as a question, but it is one. His eyes tell me this. He expected someone larger.
“You are the best they have to offer?” He barks out a laugh. Maybe it wasn’t a question. Maybe it was a joke. His tone is flat and hard for me to read.
“I am the one they sent,” I say.
“Will you fight?”
“If I must.”
He reaches for his spear. I hold up my hand.
“Only if I must.”
The man pauses, his forehead bulging. Adrenaline is already pumping through his veins. I know. I can feel it in my chest and taste it on my tongue.
“You stand here, don’t you? For what other reason may that be?”
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“What is this?”
“Were you driven out of your homes?”
“Look at us! Do you think anyone could drive us out?”
“Then you don’t want our homes. Do you want our food?”
The man laughs, but there is no joy in his voice. “Do we look starving to you?”
I look again. No, not hungry, but there is something else.
“You want our water.”
No quick response.
Our homes lie on low land along both sides of a wide deep river. We make boats out of the leafy plants that grow out of the marshy earth. The riverweed that grows along the riverbed gives us life.
Trees aren’t fond of the ground we call home, and we prefer to leave them be. We build our homes out of clay and weeds.
Away from our home, trees are even harder to find. So is water. People there rely on our four-legged cousins for survival. They drink their milk to fatten their bodies. They kill for meat and clothing. They can survive, but not without thirst.
“The river doesn’t begin and end with us,” I say.
“You mock me.”
“No. I want to know why you don’t drink further down the river.”
“Further down is no good. This you know. The water is filled with clay. It makes us sick.”
Before I can say another word, he raises his spear. “Enough questions! Do your people not intend to honor their word? We fight so that there will be no war. When we win, you will step aside.”
“We are people of our word. But what if you could win with no war and no fight?”
“Cowardice?” he asks. Or maybe it’s an insult. The men around us laugh with dry, husky voices.
“I see no reason for anyone to die over water enough for us all to share.”
“You want us to drink and leave?”
“I want a new agreement. A trade.”
“We have nothing to trade.”
The people who kill don’t live long in one place. The kin they feed on don’t like death and migrate somewhere else. The killers are always on the move, and things would only slow them down.
All they claim ownership over are the kin they enslave so that they may ride on their backs from place to place. We have no want for their slaves, and they would not give them up if we did.
“You fight. Give us your protection, and we’ll give you water.”
“And live here like you?”
“Come and go as you wish. We will supply you with water for your travels. All we ask is that you place your bodies between us and those would next seek to come after ours.”
“Did your people send you here with this offer?”
“Then it’s hollow.”
Some of the surrounding men step forward. They snarl. But my opponent waves them back. “He is mine to kill,” he says.
“If you accept my words, so will my people. It is our way.”
“As is cowardice.”
I am surrounded by big belly laughs.
He continues, “But I will give you a chance. Come back with proof of your commitment, and I will spare your life.”
I drop down onto my knees and press my forehead to the ground, a sign of respect for my people. The men around me are unneverved by this. My guard is down. I have no weapon. My back is exposed.
No one takes advantage of me. I stand back up, nod my head, and turn back toward my home.
I enter my community without a word. We are a quiet people. We are also a trusting people, and there is no leader for me to ask to accept my commitment. If there were time, we would strike the bells, and call forth all interested to deliberate by the river.
But there is no time. Instead, I pick up the nearest pot and carry it to the river. I will do this, as often as needed. There’s no need for the killers to kill others who are only as thirsty as they.
When the pot is full, I carry it back out of my community without a word.
As I approach, those who kill return to their lines. I walk between the columns of flesh beneath their gazing eyes. Then, I set the pot of water down at my opponent’s feet. From that moment on, he is my opponent no longer.
The violence is gone from his eyes.