Published on 2012/07/08

The Grey Ones

G.A. Rozen

Once, when man was still young- still saving one day, each year, to paint their faces with the entrails of the animal whose father spirit protected their children and ensured rich hunts- there was a village, thatched huts and bloody stones arranged in a circle around a great fire pit. The other people, the gatherers of the mountains, and the larger tribes of the plains, knew to stay away from the village, and the shadowy people who called it home.

They were called, in many tongues, “The Grey Ones,” and they were great hunters. Each morning, before the sun rose, the men of the village would rise from their beds, where they slept besides their favorite wives, surrounded by their favorite children, and join the others around the fire pit. The last stars still grinning down at the dew-covered grass, the men would stoke smoldering dung to hot coals, to burning brush, to a great torrent of flames, so swift from practice, the fire built the same way their fathers built theirs, and so on, all the way back to their primordial father, the Great Lion who swallowed his bride and defecated the world.

Hidden amongst them, towards the outside of the circle, you'd see the smallest of the men, the quiet one, whose name was Other. Other had only one wife, and only one son, and the rest of the men turned their nose up to him as he passed, a mixture of disgust and pity painting their faces.

The heat would billow in the morning air, making a ripping sound like fluttering sheets, and the older sons would rise from their sleep and come out to watch the men stand around the flames, Other included, dancing in a mesmeric circle, roaring and hissing like the Great Father. Then, when the wooden-box structure at the fire's heart collapsed, they would cease their dancing, unsheathe themselves, and drown the inferno.

Each hunter would dip his hands into the ashes, white and hot, and paints his body. Some, the lesser hunters, fearful at the prospect of the stomachs of their children growling like dogs, would barely mark themselves at all, putting dark gray streaks under their eyes or hand prints on their chest. The more brave amongst them, confident and proud, would coat their skin until it glistened gray like the mists that billowed from the grass each morning. Other, who was bored by the contest, would passively rub ash against his shoulders, spectacularly disinterested.

It was a never ending game, between the best of them, who could paint themselves the whitest, stand out the most in the darkness of the forests, and still return home with a meal worthy of their name. And they would disappear into the wilderness, each alone, returning, one by one, just after the sun rose above the mountains, with an impala or wildebeest slung over their shoulders. None could hunt like the Grey Ones, and while water would sometimes elude them as it eluded the lands, they never went hungry.

And so it was, one morning, that Other rose from his slumber, sleep still heavy on his eyelids, to find the Devil waiting for them in their circle.

He appeared to them as a young man. His skin was black as volcanic glass, his powerful muscles covered by red robes. He grinned a white grin, gnawing on the leg bone of a guinea fowl. Other watched the rest of the men draw their spears and bare their teeth, but none of them moved to strike. An outsider had never had the audacity to enter their realm, to sully their circle. Curiosity, it seemed, stayed their hands.

“Who are you,” the oldest of them, their leader, who in his youth had killed a hippopotamus with his thumb, finally asked, “who stands between us and the hunt?”

“A fellow killer,” the Devil replied, bone cracking in his jaws, leaking marrow down his chin, “a warrior known far and wide, a monster, a slayer of beasts and an eater of men.”

“You are not my equal” prodded another, named Eager, not the best of them, but one who thought he had what it took.

“Equal, no” the Devil replied through crunching teeth, “superior I think. I know.”

There was a murmur amongst the women and children, who had gathered behind the men. Eager snarled.

"Draw your terms, then, stranger," he spat, "Unless you're afraid to prove yourself against the mighty Grey Ones."

Other watched as the Devil grabbed the leg bone from his jaws and fiddled with it, passively, in his hand as the other scratched his chin.

"We shall build a fire," he began, "larger than you're used to, children, so that all the people of the plains and all the people of the mountains can come down and see."

The men were too focused on the Devil, gesturing wildly with the cracked leg bone, to notice Other move slowly towards the front.

"You... people," he said this part with something like amused revulsion, "can pick whomever you'd like. Your most skilled hunter. He can paint himself with the ashes as white as he likes, saunter into the bush, and return with a dead thing worth savoring."

Other had made it to the front of the group, and now the Devil looked at him, his small frame, his soft face, and smiled.

"Then I'll paint myself whiter, and kill something bigger. You can have... three! Three goes. Then all the land will know that the Grey Ones are masters of the hunt no more, and I'll swallow every last one of you. As a mercy. To spare you the shame." He said this last part as a matter of fact; their fate was sealed.

“What reward awaits us in victory?” This was Other. The rest of the men groaned. They were always laughing at him, at the care he took with his dogs, the familial way he doted on the elephant calves that drank from the clearing in the trees. The beasts learned to welcome his occasional visits and the promise they held of berry mash spread onto the fat ends of branches. The rest of the village saw this, and whispered. Loudly.

The Devil heard the scoffs and grumbles of the rest of the men, noted them, and made a show of contemplation, scratching his smooth chin with a long, sharp fingernail.

“A spring,” he eventually replied, breaking a thick silence, “a fine, shade covered place nearby where cool water bursts right from the stone, never stopping, never drying up. It's hidden well, but I know the way.”

The land gave the Grey people meat like it gave them sunlight, but water, in the dry months, was a constant struggle. The hole where the elephants drank, in quick jerking gulps as their long trunks sprayed into their slack jaws, was dirty, and in a few months wouldn't be there at all. The people, Other in particular, for he was always looking ahead, knew the spring for the prize it was, and the bargain was set.

The Devil built the fire, not in the circle, but in the open savannah just outside the village, so that the people in the mountains and the tribes of the plains would see it and come bear witness. It was a titanic spectacle, a monumental ball of heat and crackling burning consumption. A star brought to earth. When a crowd had gathered, their different tribal affiliations marked by the colors of their robes, he danced around the circle, mocking the Grey ones, before quenching the fire alone with an epic, mythical piss. The hot smoke of the dying flames blinded everyone.

The Grey Ones selected, first, their most cunning hunter, a squat man with broad shoulders named Shimmer, and now he entered the cloud of smoke, emerging moments later a white ghost. He walked into the bush, and was gone.

The crowd rumbled and murmured as it waited. Those dressed in red did not care for the purple ones from the plains, and the green ones, gatherers, mostly, who hid in plain sight, were hated by everyone, but no conflict erupted. Colors herded together, cordial out of respect for the contest.

Some time later, when the sun had already risen and was nearing its apex, Shimmer emerged from the shrubs, a large male wildebeest dragging along the grass behind him as he towed it by the hoof, effortlessly.

“See here,” he chided the Devil, puffy with pride, “I killed their father, just for you.”

The Devil didn't say a word. He walked over to the corpse, smiling his white smile, and sniffed it all over.

“A trickster,” he said, throwing robe back over his shoulder, “a trickster who brings me a fresh kill that stinks of death and earth.”

Other, not surprised, heard a quiet gasp from one of the women. Curiosity quickly turned to anger amongst the Grey Ones, who turned to Shimmer with steel glares. The hunter, feeling the rising tempest growing in the crowd around him, raised his nose, defiant.

“You are mistaken, stranger,” he denied, “a fine kill I've brought you, one you'll never best.”

The Devil chuckled.

He removed his robes and dropped to his knees in the ash pit, proceeding to roll in them, covering every inch of his black skin. Often, with the best hunters, it was hard to tell who held the distinction of applying the most ash. At a certain point everyone seemed the same, white was white, but the Devil emerged a hard, blinding shade of pale, like the snowstorms in the northern lands these people didn't even know existed.

Without saying a word, the Devil sprinted, yes sprinted, into a clearing nearby, where intermingling herds of impala, oryx, hogs, and other potential meals dined on grass and leaves. He disappeared into the herd, which broke apart in every direction, an explosion of meat and fur out towards the edges of the clearing. At the explosion's center was the Devil, a full grown oryx, the largest any of them had ever seen, gasping its last, labored breaths, its neck trapped in the Devils white, white teeth.

The elders convened over the corpse Shimmer had dragged from the bush, inspected it, probing the puncture wounds at its neck with their long gray fingers. A lion kill, they decided. Maybe a leopard. Shimmer, who had shamed them with his trick, would die that evening.

Before the sun had set, the women of the village had gathered the necessary supplies, and in front of a grand fire, as everyone ate the fruits of that evening's hunt, Shimmer sat before them, his bare ass resting on the top of a hive of vibratingly hostile bees. Thorn covered vines were wrapped around his head, and when he was bloated, and red, and trembling with fire, the Devil nodded to the elders, and they presented the now crippled Shimmer, who could barely see, a set of three dried muna leaves, and he chewed on them, oozing gratitude from his open wounds. Brittle and sharp, they broke to shards like glass in his throat, and before he could begin the third, he was dead.

Other watched all this from a distance, snacking on impala and berries alone, under an acacia tree. He hadn't heard Shimmer's screams; he was too lost in his own thoughts.

That night, while the Devil slept, the men of the village convened, whispering to each other.

Each man offered themselves, in sequence, for the honor of defeating the Devil the following morning, the lesser hunters quickly deferring to those they secretly knew to be their masters. Other tried to get a word in, tried to tell the rest that he had been thinking, that he had an idea. He was ignored, his voice overwhelmed.

The next morning it was their greatest hunter, a lither, majestic specimen named Smoke, whose muscles rippled in long bands beneath his skin like a cheetah, who stood before the fire pit, waiting to respond to the Devil's challenge.

“You've bested a fool,” he said, already chalk white, spear in hand, “but now you face a man.”

And he was off, slithering into the vegetation without a sound, his speed inhuman. All the rest of the villagers, and indeed the other peoples who had come to watch, knew this was to be the end of the confrontation, for no one could best this great hunter, Smoke, the best and mightiest of the Grey ones. All except Other, who waited alone on a stump, chin in his hand, leg bouncing with impatience.

And when the towering beast of a man returned, his own oryx, somehow bigger, nearly the size of a buffalo, slung over his shoulders, there rose a cheer of triumph from the gathered crowd. Surely this man was the greatest warrior in the land.

The Devil applauded, gently, his long fingers tapping against his opposite palm. Never once did the smile leave his face, and Other knew what would happen next.

He disrobed, covered himself, and, this time, walked into the woods, out of sight, towards the river. There were buffalo there, a meandering group of stinking brown beasts, their wet noses buried in the grass, too huge and strong to concern themselves over serval or foxes. The Devil chose a calf out from the crowd, charged it, and bulled into it, shoulder first, somehow knocking the behemoth to the ground. There was a wailing snort, and the calf's mother, only a few yards away, went into a rage and stampeded towards him.

Calmly, the Devil stepped to the side, caught the monster's horn, and jerked. The animal fell dead in an instant.

There was no cheer when he returned to the village, enormous sack of flesh and bone carried triumphantly on his shoulders. He presented it to the elders, who watched, horrified, as the gift was laid out before them.

“Once more,” he said, licking his lips, “once more and then the game is done.” And he walked off into the wilderness.

Smoke, who had been their most revered and loved, hung his head. That night, Other tried to stop them. Smoke's failure was inevitable, success impossible. There was no reason to be so harsh. But he was ignored, and the men built a fire in their pit, smaller than normal. Smoke, who's family had gathered their belongings and waited for him outside the village, stood over the fire with a roughly sharpened stone, shaped into a blade. With jagged, caustic hacks, he cut at the thumb of his bad hand, until it fell, a droplet of person, into the fire. He'd leave them, never to return. His greatness would stay, burning in their fires.

When he was gone, the men gathered together once more, only this time confidence and bravado was replaced with wet, weeping fear and cold, gentle numbness. What could they do? If the best of them could not defeat this stranger, surely they were doomed. Other again tried to raise his voice, he had a plan, he said, an idea to win the day, but still they ignored him, drunk on their own sorrow and self-pity.

The next morning, when the Devil arrived, building, again, a massive fire, raising the entire village from restless sleep, he was jovial.

“Good morning,” he called to them, “a fantastic morning indeed.”

The crowd gathered again, children hiding behind mothers, who in turn held trinkets and keepsakes, small pieces of magic, to their breasts. The Devil asked who was to be his opponent, and none replied.

“Surely there must be one,” he said, not believing. He scanned the crowd and saw defeat in their eyes. All but one, who slowly stepped forward. Other. The quiet one. The weak one.

And the Devil laughed, a cruel bitter laugh that stung like smoke. He had expected more, he said, from the great Grey People of the foothills, the shadowy monsters of the village none dared enter. Now none would face him except the runt, the pariah.

“Tell you what, boy,” he said derisively, “I'll do right by you. I'll even go first.” He bowed, as if bestowing upon Other a momentous gift, and proceeded to cover himself in ash, more ash than any of them had ever seen on a man, and made his way towards the river once more.

He wasted no time, entering the water without a moments thought, the cold rushing first past his ankles, then his knees, then all the way to his waist. He saw a pod of hippos, snorting blasts of water from their nostrils, and smacked the water. He yelled like a madman.

A bull, enormous and grumpy, surfaced in front of him, like the earth rising from the river's bed, and bared its monstrous teeth, huge yellow spikes jutting from blood red gums. The Devil bared his own teeth in that same hideous smile, and pounced, disappearing, with the animal, beneath the surface.

Bubbles popped. Ripples under green liquid. Then, at the river's edge, the Devil emerged, dragging the bull's corpse by the fang.

He brought the hippo before the people, and they despaired. Mothers held their children to their chests, who sobbed wet puddles into their robes. The men were quiet, resigned, afraid, and yet, at peace.

Other saw the hippo, dead and huge, and nodded. He walked up to the ash pit, the people barely noticing, too lost in their own grief, and rolled in it, a look of vague disgust painting his face. When he was as white as the Devil, he grabbed supplies, bundled in a blanket, from his hut, and told the Devil, and all else who wished to see, to follow him, for his beast was too large to carry.

The crowd, Other, and the Devil all made their way into the trees, to a nearby clearing Other knew well. As the rest watched, he opened his bundle, revealing a wooden bowl of dark red slush.

With dexterous hands, accustomed to the task, he reached up to a nearby tree and snapped off a long, thin branch. Carefully, he slathered the tree-end of the branch in the mush. When he was ready, he lifted the berry covered branch, and waited.

They waited for a long time. Long enough for the families of the people to gather together, love each other, and speak of the great hunt that awaited them after death. Long enough for the Devil to grow tired, his eyes heavy.

Finally, an elephant calf, slow moving and swift all at once, emerged from the trees, and casually approached them. It saw the quiet one, the branch covered in berry mash, and was calm. It knew him, and he it, and it walked to him, its rough gray skin looking like stone stretched thin over bones.

Other held up the branch, and the calf lowered its head, grabbing at the mush with its long, dexterous trunk and slopping big puddles of it into its mouth. Slowly, Other choked up on the branch, the reach growing shorter, the head getting lower. The men in the crowd shushed their wives, understanding what was happening, hope budding in their stomachs.

Soon the calf was close enough to touch. Other, his small hand shaking, reached out slowly, and for a moment the calf jerked its head back, but it quickly calmed, and after a moment let the man stroke its face, the leathery hide cool under his fingers.

With great suddenness, the hand blurred, away from the beast, then at it, into it, one, two, three quick strikes, the spearhead in his hand no longer hidden. The beast flung its head back, a look of pure surprise in its big white eyes. Its head swung from side to side, red spurts of blood raining down over the clearing as it trounced from side to side in a panic, loud wails like a dying child flooding the clearing. Then its raging dulled to a confused struggle, then just slow, labored breathing, before the animal crumpled to the ground.

The crowd cheered. Even the Devil, forever impressed by ingenuity, clapped his long hands, smile still plastered to his face. The following morning, he would show Other the spot in the rocks where the water flowed all year round, never drying, never turning. It would slake the thirst of he and his family for generations, the Devil told him.

"You're not upset, at losing?" He asked the Devil, when they were alone.

The Devil clasped those long, serpentine fingers to Other's shoulder, and chuckled.

"Wouldn't that be something," he said, as if this were an answer. Then he added "why be upset, when I've had so much fun."

G.A. Rozen is a graduate of the University of Michigan's undergraduate creative writing program, and is currently seeking his MFA in fiction at Columbia College in Chicago. His work has been published in Rain Taxi and at When not in class or working as a bookseller, G.A. splits his time between short fiction, film projects, and his first novel.