Interlude: The Blackened Yellow

This is the first time this story has been published outside of the “Interludes” collection. It was originally written exclusively for the book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

– John Prescott

Tired. So tired. So thirsty.

It doesn’t matter, he reminded himself. Doesn’t matter at all. He’ll find it: The promised land. A lush, green, fertile land with all the water he could stomach.

The land of the Blackened Yellow. He examined the empty bottle in his hand. He’d swim in his next water source. Then he’d fill this with legendary water.

He ran his dry tongue over withered lips. He could nearly taste it. Nearly. He thrust the empty bottle into his satchel and pressed on.

His feet betrayed him, fumbling in the deep sand. He crashed to his knees, then collapsed into the scorching sand. It stung his torn and sun-burnt skin.

The pain only brought clarity. He lifted his head, first grimacing, then grinning. He looked up at the hill of sand before him.

It would be over this crest, just on the other side. This time. He knew it. He absently lapped up the blood that spilled from his split lower lip.

“We must do something.” It was the same young man, a number of days ago. He was gazing into a deep well.

“Of course, friend Ezra. But what? We have tried to appease the gods. They will not cry for us.”

Ezra could just make out the glint of sunlight weaving on the thin pool of water at the bottom of the well. He could clearly see the earth below it. Never in his life had he seen the bottom before.

“Perhaps they do not listen. What if they want us to move on?”

Ezra’s companion scoffed. “Do you speak of your grandfather? Surely you don’t believe such crazy stories.”

“I tell you, friend Gerald… I could see it in his eyes. Such vivid descriptions… He was there again, even as he described it to us.”

“The land of Blackened Yellow. What does it even mean?” Gerald kicked at the earth. “A bunch of nonsense.”

“I will speak with the council. They will see the truth in my words.”

Gerald snapped his head up. “The council? Surely the drought has robbed you of your senses!”

“No.” Ezra smiled. “It’s made everything that much clearer.”

The lowering sun painted all it touched in a peaceful golden glow. It was at odds with the increasingly brutal heat that it cast upon the small village each and every day. Ezra turned from it, switching his attention to the creature before him.

A cow, barely alive, returned his gaze with pleading eyes. The sickly creature’s dried tongue hung limply from its mouth. It trembled slightly from the effort of standing.

Ezra shook his head. He placed gentle hands on either side of the beast’s head. “You poor creature.” The cow mewled weakly. “I know. I cannot bear to see you suffer any longer.”

He stroked the creature’s fur. “I will speak with Mother. She will see.”

The young man sat with his mother a short time later. He chewed at the charred lizard meat that was the day’s meal. Difficult to eat on the best of days, it was especially bitter this evening.

He placed his plate to one side and gazed into the fire. He somehow hoped that the answers he sought would manifest within the flames. Perhaps the face of Father would emerge with words of guidance.

The fire would not speak with him tonight. He closed his eyes and hung his head. Ezra’s mother took notice, setting aside her own meal.

“You are troubled, child.”

Ezra did not open his eyes. “We are all troubled, now.”

“Of course we are. Never before have the gods tested us like this. That’s not what bothers you, though.”

Ezra finally opened his eyes. “No.” He raised his head. “I wish to end our last cow’s life.”

His mother froze, eyes locked on his. She quickly turned her head away. “She hasn’t been well for some time. The look in her eyes…” The fire made her own eyes glisten in the dark.

“So it is agreed, then.”

“No!” The woman whipped her head back. “She’s her last hope! We need to keep her! We’ll sell her when she…”

“When she what, mother? Dies? Wastes away to nothing? You’ve seen her suffering!” The growing sorrow painted on his mother’s face cut him like a knife. “I’m sorry.”

“No.” Her voice was a trembling whisper. “No, you are right. She suffers.” She lowered her head. “The gods will frown if we prolong it.”

“She was our best…”

“Speak no more of it.” Ezra’s mother stood and stalked away.

Ezra walked slowly home, turning two small clay discs over and over in his left hand. In his right were scraps of beef to be cured. Both represented what remained of their last cow.

He dropped it all as he approached the small mud hut that he called home. Two elders were bent over a woman just outside the entrance. He broke into a sprint, eyes growing wild.

One of the elders stood as he approached. The old man held up a staying hand. Ezra ignored it and plummeted to the ground beside his mother.

“Ezra! You shouldn’t be here. She…”

“Where else would I be! Mother…” He began to weep. His eyes fell on the dagger jutting from her chest. Anger flashed up inside him. “Who did this!

The other elder turned heavy eyes on the young man. “She did.”

Ezra shook his head. “No… NO!” He scrambled to his feet. “She wouldn’t… Who could have…”

The standing elder firmly grasped his arm. “Ezra, it’s true. She felt herself a burden… We tried to save her. I’m sorry.”

The young man tried to pull away. The elder pulled Ezra to him and embraced him. The young man screamed in grief.

So it was, the sole survivor, his family devastated by the curse of the great sun god. The thought was foremost in his mind even as His golden rays painted themselves over the body of Ezra’s mother. Such cruel mockery.

He approached the funeral pyre. She looked serene to him, as if she were enjoying some secret dream. Ezra placed his hand on hers. It felt so cold. The illusion was shattered.

From somewhere behind him came the sound of a fire roaring to life. The sun that had seen the final hours of his mother’s life passed below the horizon. Another glow grew behind him.

A gentle hand pressed on his back. “It is time, Ezra.” It was the elder that had stood to meet him earlier.

The young man lowered his head and closed his eyes. His mouth worked through a silent prayer. His gaze returned to his mother. “I am ready.”

He turned. The other elder held a torch. He held it out with both hands and bowed his head to Ezra. The young man bowed in turn and took the torch from him.

Ezra stood before the pyre. The light of the fire danced off of his mother’s skin. He felt he couldn’t move. His mind knew this was right, but his heart pulled back on his hand.

Inch by inch, he stretched towards the base of the pyre. It caught fire at last. He numbly stepped back as the flames slowly climbed their way towards his mother’s body.

He turned away as the fire reached the body of his mother. He lowered his head. Fresh tears stained his cheeks. He did not look up when the elder approached, but held out the torch. The elder took it from him and quietly walked away.

Ezra’s friend Gerald stood beside him a short while later. “Why do you turn from your mother?”

“That is not my mother anymore.”

“Still… Why do you….”

“I could have saved her!” Ezra looked upon Gerald in rage. “I should have left sooner!” He lowered his gaze to the ground, his face contorting in sorrow, his eyes red.

It was Gerald’s turn to become angry. “After all this, are you still so eager to throw your life away!”

“I will do no such thing!”

“If you still intend to walk out into the desert, you will. The council will never…”

“I am through with the council. I am through with this village! I will leave tomorrow.”

Gerald shook his head. “No, Ezra. You can’t…”

“I will…” Ezra stormed away.

“I tell you again, friend Ezra… This is madness!” Despite his words, Gerald handed Ezra two bottles of water.

Ezra hesitated. “Where did you get these?”

“The council.” Ezra’s jaw dropped. “I… borrowed it. I suppose you are not the only one who is crazy.”

“Borrowed it.” Gerald nodded. Ezra smirked. “I suppose they won’t want it back when I’m done with it. They’ll be grateful for your thievery once I come back.”

“Ezra… Do you really think you’ll find the Blackened Yellow?”

“I must.” He reached into his satchel and produced a small circular device. Inside of it was a needle which appeared to float. Four markings adorned the bottom of the case.

Gerald’s eyes grew wide. “What is it?”

“It belonged to my grandfather. He called it his ‘calmness’. He said he used it to find the Blackened Yellow.”

“How does it work?” Gerald watched, transfixed as the needle inside turned this way and that, seemingly of its own accord.

“This needle, when the painted end faces the three lines, will point the way to the Blackened Yellow. I only need to keep it pointed in that direction.”

“So why didn’t he ever return, if it was so easy?”

Ezra smiled sadly. “He was too weak to go by himself, and the council wouldn’t allow anyone to accompany him.”

Gerald looked puzzled. “How could the elders claim this Blackened Yellow doesn’t exist?”

“That was always my grandfather’s point. Everyone always laughed at him when he talked about it, yet nobody was ever willing to prove him wrong. He said they were too scared.”

“Scared of what, though?”

Ezra shrugged. “Of being wrong? Of being lost in the desert, I suppose. I don’t know…” He hoisted his satchel and winked. “I’m not scared.”

“I can’t help but think that you should be, friend Ezra.” Gerald kicked at the sand. “I won’t try to stop you, though.”

“Thank you for that. I’ll see you soon.”

“Soon!” Ezra’s voice was as dry and cracked as his lips. A stunted laugh turned into a coughing fit. He hugged his ribs with one blistered arm and struggled to his feet.

Each step came with sheer force of will. His breathing came in ragged, tearing breaths as he fought to find purchase in the loose sand. He never took his eyes off the top of the hill. He was certain the Blackened Yellow would be on the other side.

Ezra fell to his knees half way to his goal. He was breathing in great gasps. His weary eyes saw two hilltops when he looked up. He dug his hands into the hot sand and clawed his way higher.

Gravity claimed him. The hot sand burned his cheek, but he did not feel it. He was only vaguely aware that he was atop his hill.

The world was slowly spinning, or was he? His eyes sagged shut. It felt good. The darkness. It felt… warm. Inviting. He could just let go.

“No.” It was more of a croak than a word. Ezra opened his eyes. He lifted his head with great difficulty, and peered down the other side of his sandy hill.

He saw dark green. He fluttered his eyes, willing them to work just a little longer. Slowly, painfully, the treeline came into view.

“Grandfather,” he wheezed. The sight and excitement brought forth energy from the very depths of his soul. He pressed himself to his hands and knees and plunged forward.

He stumbled and fought his way down the far side of the sandy hill. Momentum took over, sending him tumbling to the bottom. He came to a stop with half his body lying on cool, green grass. It was a sensation wholly alien to him.

He sucked in a deep breath, eyes wide in wonder. They turned towards the massive, gnarled trees that stood just beside him now. He grabbed at the grass with his hand. It was real.

Ezra willed himself back to his knees. He breathed deeply through his nose. The smell was fresh, organic, damp.

There, in the distance. Water. Standing water, waiting for him to drink. He forced his body forward, gleefully pawing his way through the lush green grasses that grew at the base of the trees.

He allowed himself to collapse at the edge of the water. It was nothing more than a puddle, really. It could have been a great ocean, as far as Ezra was concerned.

The cool water stung his torn and bloody lips. The feel of the the life-giving liquid flooding his parched mouth washed away the pain. He pulled in so much water that he gagged on it, and began to cough.

Still, the water gave him renewed vigor. He leaned forward and lowered his face into the cool water. He rubbed at his eyes. His vision cleared, revealing an amazing sight.

Small, white mushrooms dotted the grass before him. They had the faintest green glow to them. Beyond, he could see a clearing. In the middle of it was a pond.

Somehow Ezra found his feet. He stumbled through the puddle he had drank from. The cold water flooding his threadbare moccasins made his tired feet cramp. He ignored the sensation and forced himself into a jog.

He half-fell, have-dove into the crisp, clear water of the pond. All of his pain washed away along with the grime and the dirt of the desert. He emerged at the far end of the pond, eyes wide.

Ezra had found it: the Blackened Yellow. His grandfather had been right. Here was an oasis, not only of water, but of life. The otherworldly water tingled on his skin, penetrated it.

Burned it.

He looked at his arms. They were covered in rapidly growing blisters. He felt it all over his body. The burning threatened to overwhelm him. He found it increasingly hard to breathe.

Ezra began to grin. He wasn’t dying. He was changing, growing! It would make him something more! He focused his rapidly diminishing vision on the relic before him, standing at the foot of the pond.

It was a paper-thin steel barrel. Faded black paint still clung to it in spots. In the middle of it was a bright yellow circle. In the middle of that was a black circle with three black marks fanning out from it.

“Blackened… Yellow…” Ezra’s lips split apart as his grin widened. He stretched a skeletal arm towards the barrel. The metal split where his fingers graced it.

Brilliant glowing folds of white and green filled his failing eyesight. In the light, he beheld his smiling grandfather. Ezra suddenly found the energy to stand. “I found it, grandfather!”

Ezra’s grandfather smiled, but his eyes were heavy. “Yes, my boy. Come.” The young man did as he was asked, leaving the beauty and pain of the Blackened Yellow far behind.