“Really, fools like you who rush around without a clue are the most despicable. Disgusting, pathetic, and fatal! My life is wasted because of people like you who throw away their lives like flies! You won’t let me sit idly by and live in peace…!”
Tarhan felt a distant headache and slowly closed his eyes before he opened them again. When he opened his eyes, he saw a familiar face crying and shouting.
Earlier, he seemed to have fainted at the shocked expression on Piache’s wrinkled face. As he forced his staggering body to stand up, he was immediately held back by the old woman’s strong arms.
“You stubborn…! Don’t try to get up like that! You almost died this time for real—!”
He realized this before even hearing Piache’s warning.
His body was screaming. He felt like he might vomit at any moment, and his head was dizzy, much like when he had smelled the musty Feluda nest ten years ago. He thought he heard ringing in his ears.
He remembered waking up on the empty plain with the carcass of a Geppa laid out before him and crawling all the way to the village. He vaguely recalled rolling down the Geppa tusks that he had carried at Kahanti’s feet in front of dozens of people.
Of course, he couldn’t remember anything after that.
“…Where am I?”
He pushed away Piache’s hand and opened his mouth, emitting a weak and terrible voice. Piache sobbed, wiping away the tears that had fallen on her wrinkled cheeks.
“Who cares where you are! She’s waiting at your house! The woman took her out, saying they were preparing a coming-of-age ceremony.”
His mind cleared at the words. Groaning in pain, he yelled at Piache, his neck veins bulging.
“What?! Leave me…! What if I let her go?! How can I trust those women…!”
Surprisingly, a sense of fear arose in the old woman’s wavering expression amid his fierce demeanor. Tarhan finally realized how wretched he must appear. From his face down to his shoulders and chest, every part was wrapped in blood-soaked fabric.
Simultaneously, the old woman’s strong grip struck his chest. He briefly opened his eyes in astonishment at the immense force and glared at her.
“If you want to see that girl again, then you better listen carefully from now on. You evil bastard! At least if you both want to safely go through the coming-of-age ceremony…!”
Despite his resistance, Piache ruthlessly distorted her face and pushed down on his shoulders. He was inwardly shocked by her force and let Piache bring her face close to his.
As if someone might be eavesdropping, she whispered near his ear.
“No one thought you’d come back alive. No one, really…! Still, it’s not enough that you crawled back in, you brought the Geppas tusks with you, and the whole situation has flipped. Kahanti has called the elders. They are discussing how to decide on your and the girl’s fate…!”
Tarhan stared at Piache with wide eyes.
“So don’t make a fuss. Kill that fiery temper! If you’re someone who came back from the dead, act like it…! Kahanti won’t break the promise he made. You and the girl’s coming-of-age ceremony will proceed as planned. Just pretend to follow the ritual properly if you have the chance!”
Cold sweat was dripping down Piache’s temples.
As if checking the outside situation, she glanced towards the entrance of the hut where they were, then added,
“The purification ritual for the coming-of-age has already begun. You don’t even remember losing consciousness for three days, do you? So, when the opportunity arises, participate quietly and obediently in the ritual. You probably hate it enough to die, but at least pretend to comply with the customs of the Aquilean tribe. After that, rebel or cause trouble as you wish! I won’t care—!”
Her words seemed to pierce Tarhan’s ears. Her trembling pupils looked fixedly at the dry bloodstains around his mouth, unable to close her hands that were holding Tarhan’s jaw firmly.
Suddenly, Piache’s grip on Tarhan’s jaw let go urgently. As footsteps were heard at the door, the old woman, who had been guarding his side, heard groveling sounds several times before short footsteps echoed, and she left the hut.
Tarhan opened his eyes, straining his ears as he heard heavy footsteps approaching from beyond the ceiling of the visible hut.
Something unpleasant fell with a thud near the bed.
Tarhan lay down, squinting his eyes as he glared at the looming shadow of Kahanti above him. Though unseen, he could sense the expression of the old chieftain encountering an unexpected variable. It was regrettable that he couldn’t retort on his face right away.
Kahanti’s arrogant voice resonated from the ceiling as if it were the voice of death itself.
“The purification period lasts for ten days. After that, there will be no more discussion about you and your woman’s treatment, as agreed.”
The raspy voice sounded unpleasant. Tarhan didn’t respond and closed his eyes. The old serpent-like chieftain’s voice seemed to add, sounding uncertain and faint,
“…Wretched b*stard. Even given a chance to die, you return without any shame every time.”
The heavy footsteps faded away again.
Left alone in the empty hut, Tarhan finally opened his eyes. Even then, he couldn’t feel the flickering eyes in the darkness for a long time.
Only after Kahanti left did Tarhan crawl over to the package he had thrown and opened it.
The tusk of the Geppas was carved to reveal those milky white beads. A gemstone made by cutting out, condensing and extracting several times from the huge tusk that would emit color over and over again.
Tarhan, who had been looking down at it quietly, put it back in his pocket. Holding it close to his chest, he closed his eyes again.
* * *
He didn’t know how the ten days had passed.
During the period known as the purification ritual, the only herbalist in the tribe, Piache, wandered around and occasionally relayed news from the outside. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to ask how she was doing. Whenever he tried to speak, his throat would constrict, and his hands and feet would tingle, making it impossible to open his mouth.
Unfortunately or fortunately, the nosy old woman, who seemed to have as many as three lungs a Gerpan had, never stopped talking for a moment.
“Enya, though it’s a bit hard for me to say, would look good with any flower given her fair skin. It’s important not to go empty-handed when you first visit her. If your skills are lacking, appeal to her emotions… For heaven’s sake, are you even listening to me…?”
Since earlier, the words of this old woman had been filling his ears. It was all about mating and relationships between men and women.
He turned his head in Piache’s opposite direction, who he had been trying to ignore, and snapped at her.
“D*mn it, I know everything! If you’re going to talk like that, just get lost!”
He pressed his reddened face back into the bed and tightly closed his eyes. There was no way he hadn’t acquired knowledge on that aspect during the years he lived in Aquilea. He had seen plenty of Aquileans behaving like mating beasts as the Day of Repose approached.
Piache, on the other hand, flashed her axe-like eyes and fell silent.
“I know you just want to say it…! To inexperienced and immature girls like Enya, the most dangerous presence is someone like you, who has grown up in a wishy-washy manner!”
Under the relentless assault of her words, picking at his sore spots, Tarhan sealed his lips, feeling as though he had become the lowest of the low. Continuing with Piache’s education, an indescribable sense of shame came over him, forcing him to grit his teeth.
“So listen up, you punk. Just as a man has a rod, a woman has an entrance into which it enters, and its location is… Also, just touching it doesn’t make a woman feel it…”
He held out with his eyes closed until her nagging was over, again squirming his swear words.
Lying with his broad back to Piache, he thought to himself.
‘There’s no way I could… with that kid.’
Suddenly, his throat felt hollow, and his arms that wrapped around his chest felt chillingly cold. To dispel the sinking feeling, he bit his lips.
The purification period had come to an end. However, there was no celebration or toast traditionally given to men who had undergone Aquilea’s coming-of-age ritual. He didn’t receive cheers from the people, nor did he ride around the village in a ceremonial carriage. His ritual was complete and approved by the Supreme Elder Haron and Kahanti.
Tarhan didn’t feel regret or despair about the humiliating procedure. On the contrary, he even felt relieved that the absurd ceremony had been skipped. However, he couldn’t shake off the strange feeling that lingered within him.
“The girl is waiting in your tent, fully prepared.”
Haron coldly informed Tarhan of the formal completion of his coming-of-age ceremony, to which Tarhan defiantly met his gaze.
Upon hearing that she was waiting for him in his tent, Tarhan felt as though his heart had plummeted to the ground, but he struggled not to show it. Without replying, he left the tent where the purification ritual had taken place, feeling an indescribable sense of suffocation.
‘Now… do I have to live as an Aquilean man until I die?’
Despite having sacrificed countless lives for the people of Aquilea, the thought of now having to bury his bones in this land was accompanied by agony and shame.
A sense of indebtedness and guilt toward his homeland felt like a noose tightening around his throat.
‘Let’s not think about it… I won’t think about Cartantina anymore.’
To resist being engulfed by the overwhelming sadness and confusion, Tarhan strengthened his steps, trying to push back the surging emotions.