An ON TIME Excerpt: “Aim’s True” by Phillip T. Stephens

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Enjoy an excerpt from Phillip T. Stephens’s “Aim’s True,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.

Alachimoagan, the Restless One, sat on his haunches at the hill’s peak and surveyed the Forbidden Valley to the east. He carved the narrow end of the straightest branch he found into a spear tip and dreamed of himself in the valley, throwing a real spear into the neck of the herd’s lead boar, a spear like his uncle’s, taller than any member of the tribe and as thick as Alachimoagan’s hand. The boy grabs the beast’s tusks as it brushes past and wrestles it to the ground. Its squeals echo across the valley. The other hunters unleash their spears and arrows to bleed the beast, and finally, he collapses into the long grass. Silent. Still. The warriors strip the hide, carve the tusks then the meat from the carcass, wrap the meat in leaves, and cart the bundles back to camp. Their songs will celebrate Alachimoagan, hunter and warrior.

One day.

One day.

He hunts behind his eyes, a story not yet told around the campfires, not yet a warrior but a whelp.

Even now, the warriors gathered in the lodge to prepare for the next hunt, allowing Alachimoagan to slip away from camp and practice his tracking skills.

Overhead an eagle circled the skies, silent, searching for prey. The skies are silent except for the wind. The birds have moved elsewhere in search of grubs that have burrowed out of beaks’ reach deep in the rock-hard dirt.

To the east, in the Forbidden Valley, a low rumble rose, like the distant thunder before the storm. He knew the sound. Bison, as many as the fingers on his hands, leaving a dense dust trail in their wake. One bison, stripped and cured, would feed the village for weeks.

The ruthless sun battered his brows and shoulders, painting the scene in blinding white. No clouds to protect him from his fury. The dirt held fast beneath his toes, having been baked with no rain since the last snow. The harvest season was upon them, and the beans withered on the vines. The hunting party would leave at dawn to search for game to the south, not knowing their prey was close at hand.

So tempting to forge into the valley and test his spear, but a boy, by himself with a wooden-tipped spear, lacked the knowledge and experience to test his skills against the herd. Even though he never missed his target. Ever. A pumpkin resting in a tree limb or a rabbit scurrying through the grass were nothing compared to a bison charging with head lowered to trample you under his hooves. His skull could crush a warrior’s breastbone, then he could twist his neck and hook you with his horn.

His mentor, Alluns, which meant “arrow” or “aims true,” could make the throw from the edge of the Forbidden Valley, his arm strong and his eye inerrant. Even with only three fingers on his throwing hand, having lost two fingers to frost when he was a boy, one strike with his spear—a spear longer than the clan’s tallest brave and marked with the kills of countless hunts—one strike into the neck would bring the bison to his knees.

Alachimoagan should alert the warriors, even though they were forbidden to hunt in the valley. He knew the stories, how clan members had wandered past the boundary by accident and never returned.

Even so.

He pushed his legs to the limit, pounding the baked soil with the balls of his feet and his lungs gasping for air. He pushed through the forest and across the drying creek bed, and rushed into the village with hands waving and face flushed.

“I found them. A herd of bison in the Forbidden Valley—”

His mother rushed to catch him and held him back when he stepped toward the lodge where the men gathered seeking visions for the hunt.

She wrapped her arms around him, clutching him to her breast. “Calm down. You know better than to interrupt the rites.”

He tried to break away. “The herd could be gone before they finish. They need to know.”

Natoochton dropped the basket she was weaving and gripped his shoulders. “Listen to your mother. If you wish to be a warrior, you must behave as one.”

Alachimoagan pulled away and waved them off. He turned his back to them and wandered away, only to circle back and sneak toward the matron’s hut. He knew he shouldn’t approach her, but only she had the authority to break tradition.

He crawled on his belly through the opening, making sure not to look in her direction.

“Impatience will be your undoing, Alachimoagan.” She sat in shadows against the back wall on deer pelts, the scent of herbs drifting from the bowl at her knee. She never showed her face, and even when she emerged from her hut under a starlit sky, she wrapped her body in pelts and hid her face behind netting. Rumor said that she entered the world before the Snapping Turtle clan was spawned, one of the original members of the Poke-koo-un’go, the Turtle family.

No one knew the matron’s true name but the tribe called her Gischeleman, Maker with Mind. None of the other clans could boast an elder of her age and status. Many sent representatives to ask her advice and wisdom.

“But the warriors will look for game to the south. I spotted an entire herd in the Forbidden Valley just before I ran back to report.”

She stirred a pot filled with geranium and ginger. “Why did you enter the Forbidden Valley?”

He dug his fingernails into the dirt. Why did adults always admonish and never listen? “I didn’t enter the valley. I saw them from a hilltop and left immediately to report.”

“Avoid the valley. To enter is to erase the moment of your birth. Now, run and ask your mother how you can assist the preparations for the hunt.”

He backed from the tent and, once outside, kicked at the unforgiving soil. What did she mean by erasing the moment of his birth? The warrior’s way was to put the clan before his own life. Did she want him to spare the warriors for future battles by placing his own life on the line?

Alachimoagan would behave as a warrior, even though his way was not yet the warrior’s way. Gischeleman set the terms. But his puny spear would never bring the bison down. He needed a warrior’s spear. The purification rites would last for the rest of the day. Alluns would not return to his hut until the stars climbed the sky.

He checked to make sure no one was watching and slipped into the warrior’s hut. His mother’s adopted brother, the man who oversaw Alachimoagan’s training. The warrior dangled his spear from the ceiling, supported by two strips of hide with loops tied at the end. He didn’t want the shaft to bow from the weight of resting on its axis against the wall. Other warriors scoffed, but other warriors replaced their spears often. Alluns had hardened the shaft with heat and age. He replaced the flint blade after every kill, but the shaft would go with him to his grave.

Alachimoagan slipped the spear through the loops and found a fresh tip on his belt. He fitted it on the end and secured it with hide. He stood at the entrance and scanned the village until no one was in sight, then he stole away to the woods.

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Phillip T. Stephens attended the writers’ workshop at Michigan State before teaching writing and design at Austin Community College for twenty years. His writing and art appear in anthologies, online, print and peer-reviewed academic journals. His work most recently appeared in the Kill Switch, Monsters We Forgot and Frozen Adornments anthologies, as well as MaintenantFlash Fiction Weekly and Duende. He lives with Carol in Oak Hill, Texas where they built a habitat in the shade of their oaks to house foster cats for austinsiameserescue.org. They found new homes for more than three hundred abandoned pets. You can find his work at https://medium.com/@reifinery

ON TIME is coming on September 30, 2020. Be sure to follow us on Amazon.

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