Chapter 16

At Ji’s command, the hunters led Samantha, Grandpa, and Harr over to a deep pit on the side of the main camp. The pit was used to trap deer and other animals, so it had a soft false floor that fell through to a 15 foot deep dirt pit. Harr had seen other disobedient clan members dropped in the pits before — they weren’t buried or immediately killed, but deprived of food and water, the buried souls would slowly starve. With no food, they grew weak over a few days. With no water, they grew delirious. If two men were buried in the pits, they would invariably turn on each after a few days, either going mad and seeing, in deluded ways, the other as a monster, or killing the other out of frustration and hunger.

Ji walked along beside Harr and the others toward the pit. “Your plan almost worked, Harr,” Ji said, laughing. “You fooled us about the book. I wish it had been the real thing, of course. We’ve been at a loss without it. That you would go to detailed lengths to create a fake, something that if accepted would have only mislead and wasted our time, frustrates me even more.”

Harr remained silent, trying to retain his last moments of dignity before the pits. Samantha walked with a bit of curiosity mixed with fear of the unknown, not knowing what fate awaited her. Grandpa kept looking at the clan members around him, trying to better understand them.

When they reached the edge of the pit, the hunters removed the brush covering the false top. The pit was much deeper than it was wide. As they stood at the edge of the pit, the hunters threw Sam, Grandpa, and Harr into the pits all at once. Harr hit first and broke the fall for the other two. They landed with a loud thud and remained still for several moments as they looked around them in the dim light, dust stirred up all around them.

Dirty, bruised from the fall, in shock, the three slowly stepped to their feet and looked around at the tall dirt walls. The walls were too tall to climb out, even if they stood on each other’s shoulders.

Harr thought the clan would leave, condemning them to a week of hunger and starvation. But Ji had something else in mind.

“The punishment of the clan for acts of treason, as you rightly know, Harr, is to be left in the pits to die. But I also know that search parties often comb the forests in search of lost men and women. Most likely they would find and retrieve you and your friends before your punishment was meted out. Consequently, I have a little surprise for you to speed things up.” With that Ji and the others walked back towards camp to retrieve the surprise would speed their deaths. Samantha, Grandpa, and Harr were left in the damp light of the dirt pits.

They were gone for some time retrieving the surprise. Harr sat dejected on the side of the pit, staring at the dirt. Grandpa took off his glasses and looked at his glasses in his hand, thinking. Samantha stood up and felt around the walls. She remembered her knife. Somehow the hunters hadn’t seen it, but it was of little use in a dirt pit. They could perhaps use it to dig out a side tunnel, if they had time. But with or without the knife, their next few days looked dim. She felt around for some leverage point in the dirt, a trap door or side exit. There was nothing. All was quiet in an eerie way, except for Harr and Grandpa’s breathing.

“Was it true?” Samantha asked Harr. “What you said about the ancient people? It wasn’t just a trick to satisfy Grandpa’s imagination, was it?”

Harr looked over at Samantha. “It is true,” Harr said. “About 300 years ago, a large group of my ancestors disappeared. They were the most intelligent of all the groups. They were neither observers, record keepers, interpreters, or hunters. Back then we didn’t have that division among the people.”

“What, then? What did they do?” Samantha asked.

“The details aren’t that clear,” Harr explained. “Mostly we interpret from their archives how they lived. It seems some were scientists, others were artists, others musicians, others philosophers. It’s hard to tell because they didn’t draw sharp distinctions between these groups. An artist was a philosopher as well as a scientist. They saw unity across the disciplines, so that they weren’t separate but rather one continuous whole.”

Grandpa’s curiosity and interest in what Harr said increased. “The unity of all things,” Grandpa said. “Some researchers believe there’s science behind art and beauty. Take, for example, the shell of a snail. It’s circular pattern follows a mathematical formula — the same one that you can observe expressed in other natural phenomena. Are you saying that these people could describe and create art by harnessing a set of universal laws?”

“To some extent,” Harr said. “That’s correct. But their innovation was to also see the world the other way as well — while art and beauty might have mathematical formulas that underlie their forms, they didn’t see the world as a formula that plaid out. Not everything could be explained rationally. They stopped looking for formulas when they started to look inward. They abandoned rationality.”

Samantha couldn’t entirely follow Grandpa and Harr’s discussion, but she could hear footsteps approaching. Ji and the hunters were returning. As Ji appeared at the edge of the pit, he held a box. Harr saw the box and groaned.

“Do you know what’s in this box?” Ji asked Harr.

“The snake of truth,” Harr said.

“Yes,” Ji said. “Would you care to explain it to your friends?”

Harr remained silent. He put his hand on his forehead and closed his eyes. This wasn’t good, Samantha thought.

“Well,” Ji said. “Allow me to explain it then. Inside this box is indeed a snake. We call it the snake of truth. This snake is a cottonmouth snake — its bite is deadly in a most painful way. Here’s how it works. We unleash it into the pit, and if you are innocent, the snake will not bite you. Now since there are three of you, we have three cottonmouth snakes in the box.”

Ji shook the box rapidly. The snakes hissed and jumped at one another in the box. All at once, Ji threw the box forcefully down into the pit. On impact, the sides split open and the snakes hissed and slithered out.

Samantha moved to the edge of the pit wall along with Harr and Grandpa. The snakes slithered all over the floor, hissing and sometimes leaning their heads back and forking out their tongues. In fear, Samantha remained absolutely still. This was of course foolish as snakes could smell their presence just as strongly as they could see them. Samantha closed her eyes, hoping that by not seeing the snakes, she would not tremble so hard.

Sing. She heard a whisper inside her. Sing.

What was this? Did she really hear a whisper? To sing? Now, here in the snake pit? Perhaps the singing would soothe the snakes, she wondered. Maybe it would calm the nerves of her companions. No, it would be foolish and mad. She reached for the knife wrapped around her ankle.

Sing. The whisper sounded again, this time more loudly. She challenged the thought. Was Grandpa or Harr whispering it? She looked at them closely. No, they were changing locations int the pit to dodge the path of the snakes.

Was it coming from one of the clan members above? She looked up. No, they looked on with laughter and heckles, rooting for the snakes and shouting at them to strike.

Samantha closed her eyes again. Slowly, she started to sing. At first she hummed softly, almost to herself. And then dropped the hum and transitioned into a soothing melody. Her voice was soft at first and then she began to sing louder. The others looked at her dumbfounded. What was she doing? Was she crazy? She kept her eyes closed, still as a stick, and simply sung. It was the forest song, the one she had sung when she decoded the record book into notes long ago. She sung the same tune over and over. The melodies swirled around the pit like butterflies fluttering in the air, moving in the same figure-eight pattern, faster and faster. Her voice gained confidence and with more confidence, volume. She incorporated words into the song, but they were words she had never spoken. The words just came to her mind, gibberish she thought. But with her mind open she let the song take over. She had no idea what she was saying, but she continued the song. The snakes continued to slither about, but they seemed blinded a bit, running into each other as well as the walls.

“Stop!” Ji shouted from above. She thought Ji was trying to silence her song, so she sung louder. A few seconds later, a rope dropped down the side of the pit. “Grab the rope!” Ji shouted. Samantha felt the falling rope land on her shoulder. She gripped it tightly and felt her body fly upward through the air.

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