Volume 20, Number 3

A Different Tribe

Sally Houtman

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing in.
—Heraclitus, ca. 500 BC

Nick stands in the phone booth, receiver in hand, a monotonous hum in his ear, a hollow ache in his gut. It has taken years for him to make that call. Now he’s been disconnected.

“There’s no glory in the second kick of a mule, Nickie.” Those words from so long ago still tear at his insides. The first time it was disappointment he’d seen on her face. The second time it was disgust. She said those words to him, then closed the heavy wooden door behind her. It hurt, but Nick knew she was right. In those days he was a lost cause. But things are different now. He is different now. He had come to explain, to set the record straight. He took that long deep breath, fed the coins one by one into the tarnished slot and waited.

“Hello?” Her voice had come, thin and distant as if diluted by time.

“Mom,” he said. “It’s Nick … Nickie. Please don’t—” There was a loud clack. A metallic click. Then the droning hum.

Maybe it’s for the best, he thinks. It’s too soon. He looks down. His own eyes stare back at him, wide and vacant in the stippled chrome. He must be a fool to think he could make her understand. Hell, he doesn’t really understand it himself. He tries to be philosophical. Perhaps it’s a sign, he thinks. That’s it. This has happened for a reason.

But Nick had never been the philosophical type. In fact, through most of his life he’d been quite the opposite. But no matter how far afield he strayed, his conscience remained a blunt chisel, nibbling at his hardened core. It was not until adulthood that he’d finally face the truth. The truth of himself he’d found in the prison library. In a photo of the Ice Man, a frozen five-thousand-year-old man. There was something about the Ice Man that tugged at a loose cable somewhere inside of Nick, drawing up the slack. In the hollow eyes of that ancient man Nick had seen, as if for the first time, himself.

So he began to read about the man, studying his tribe and his travels. Trying to understand the Ice Man’s life and the invisible hold it had taken upon his own. He read and reread each scholarly article, dog-earing the pages, littering them with notations, underlines and circles, snaring and capturing key phrases for easy retrieval. In life, Nick discovered, the Ice Man belonged to a small tribal community. But in his death, Nick believed he had somehow become a part of us all.

In the end it was not the man’s life as a simple Alpine shepherd that touched Nick the most. It was not the man’s clothing or tools or travels that made him so real in Nick’s mind. The details which pulled at Nick from across the centuries lay in the heroic circumstances of this simple shepherd’s death. Buried in the pages of a scientific journal, Nick discovered the story of the blood and the tale of how the Ice Man died that day on that frozen Alpine ridge. Although alone in death, Nick read, the ancient shepherd had not been alone on his final journey. The blood revealed that in the hours before his death the Ice Man had been carrying something. Someone. A companion, wounded and bleeding, had been pressed against the Ice Man’s cloak. The moment captured for eternity. An indelible record of timeless humanity. It was this subtle detail that had halted Nick in his tracks, forcing him to look inside himself. And he did not like what he saw.

Things had become clearer to him when seen from a distance of five thousand years than they’d ever been when viewed from the distance between the end of his nose and the mirror. It had taken the actions of a five-thousand-year-old man to show Nick, his twenty-first century counterpart, what it meant to be truly human.

It is this realization that has clouded Nick’s conscience through the ensuing years. The realization that closes in on him as he stands alone in the rusted phone booth. The air inside has grown heavy and stale, his clothing now close and damp. He has lost his sense of time. He pushes on the door and extends his arm, looking at his watch. The second hand traces its circular path, sweeping time into manageable piles. Funny thing about time, he thinks, stepping out into the empty day; it keeps pushing forward no matter what. A minute, Pastor Jim had told him, will vanish every sixty seconds no matter how well or poorly it is spent.

He pauses at the corner, looking left and right. On his right stands the crumbling hull of the railway station. To his left the main street stretches out like an emaciated arm towards the hills beyond. Painted symbols stare blindly at him from their block wall faces. Graffiti, Nick thinks to himself, the cuneiform of the modern age. He wonders what will be gleaned about us from those messages when they are unearthed five thousand years from now. He lights a cigarette and begins a steady stroll to the left.

In the distance the blue-grey hills betray the only evidence of change that has taken place since he last was here. The matchstick profile of a new subdivision skirts the perimeter of a town whose progress has always been peripheral, circling the fringe like a bedding dog but failing to penetrate the central core. To either side of him rows of dilapidated houses stand shoulder to shoulder. Shabby penitents in search of redemption. As he scuffs along the sidewalk his footsteps echo the barrenness of this place, its heart and soul empty as a Monday morning pew.

Looking out at the hills, he imagines the distant time when dinosaurs roamed this same land. Like the humans of today, generations of a species living and dying, breeding and competing. Then their sudden extinction. God’s planetary reboot, he thinks. Ctrl—Alt—Delete. Game over. Start again. He wonders if this could have been a grim warning. Adapt and improve or perish.

A young girl jostles past him, head lowered as if searching for something on the pavement below. He thinks back to the pretty blonde who sat opposite him on the train that morning. How she’d surprised him by recognizing the photo on the cover of the journal he was carrying.

“Hey! I know him,” she’d said in a triumphant tone. “That’s the Ice Man. What’s his name? Odie or something.”

“They called him Otzi,” Nick explained. “After the Otztal Alps. The area between Italy and Austria where his body was found.” He was intrigued by her interest, peering over his glasses at her airbrushed features and porcelain smile. “How do you know about him?” he asked.

“Oh, it was in a celebrity gossip mag,” she said with a wave of her manicured hand. “Brad Pitt has a tattoo of him on his forearm—kinda creepy, if you ask me. Tattooing a caveman on your arm.”

“He wasn’t a caveman,” Nick told her, folding over the page. “Quite the contrary. He lived in the Neolithic period—the Copper Age, five thousand years ago. Humans had evolved by then from hunter-gatherer to herder-farmer.” He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, eager to carry on. But he’d already lost her. Her attention had shifted back to her mobile phone. He poked his glasses in place and settled back in his seat. He imagined Otzi the Ice Man, entombed for centuries in his frozen sarcophagus, only to find himself, five thousand years later, wrapped around the dainty waist of Angelina Jolie.

When he arrived at his station he waved goodbye to the fair-haired girl, but her eyes never lifted from her lap. He thought about the wasted hours, about the conversation they might have shared to pass the time. Instead he’d sat in silence, watching her.

Nick turns the corner. A rusted-out Chevy roars past, stereo thumping. A tattooed arm dangles a cigarette from the window, rolling and bobbing like a lifeless limb. He stops and looks around. He is outside the mini-mart. Lost in his thoughts he’d taken no notice of the street he was on. He feels strangely exposed, like he’s being watched. Across the street the clack of a slatted blind rattles from the window above the bookshop. The window of Elsa Turner, the aging meerkat who’d always kept a close eye on the street below. Elsa Turner who’d identified Lowell and Ty that night, but who’d not seen him. His heart quickens, his pulse a dull drum in his ear. His memory reels, reconstructing a scene. In his mind he can see his cousin Lowell swaggering towards him High Noon style, head tilted back, arms outstretched like the branches of a Norfolk pine. “Ready, bro’?” he says. But Nick shakes the image away. It’s a thing of the past. No one is likely to see Lowell around here again.

He leans against a pole and looks sideways into the shop. The clerk, a stocky, copper-skinned woman he doesn’t recognize, is tidying the shelves. He wants to leave before he is seen. He had no business coming here. He had no right. But he can’t stop looking through the glass. He is tethered to the spot.

He strains against the dim light of the shop, thoughts suspended somewhere just inside. His breath is rough and shallow, his gaze drawn to a spot. A discoloration on the linoleum floor. His mind rolls backwards, turning round and round, slowly at first, then gaining speed. A carousel of bad decisions. A moment frozen in time.

They’d set out to steal some brews. That’s all. That’s all it was meant to be. At least that’s what they told him, Ty and his cousin Lowell. Nick was fifteen. They were so much older. He sees himself as if from above. He is opening the fridge, reaching inside. Just like they’d planned. But then it all went wrong. Time became fluid, losing definition, blurring and stretching, folding back on itself. The events lurch in stop motion. Ty lunges. The clerk turns, reaches out. A glint of metal. Something falls. A howling sound. A blur of red. The buzz and flicker of a fluorescent light.

“You’re as sick as your secrets,” Pastor Jim had said. Another cliché. Another failed attempt to subvert Nick’s course of self-destruction. “I think you’ll find, Nick,” he said, “that when we all take a good look inside we’re not as good as we hoped but we’re not nearly as bad as we’d feared.” He ran a hand through his thinning grey hair and touched Nick lightly on the arm. “You have to help me understand why you’re stuck in this revolving door—why you won’t let yourself succeed, my friend. Until you do, I can’t help you believe.”

But Nick had his own beliefs. He believed what goes around comes around. He believed on a visceral level that a crime of omission was equal to one of commission. And he also believed that this was quite likely the very life he deserved to live. He told no one about what had happened that night. How he’d run away. How he’d left a man to die.

Years later he’d visited Lowell in prison. To come to terms with it. To make his peace, not just for himself but for all of them. “We let you walk ‘cause you were just a kid,” Lowell explained He sat behind the long wooden visitor’s table, arms crooked behind his head, legs extended loosely as if seated in a poolside deck chair. “You wouldn’t have done time for it no way so wouldn’t have made a difference if anyone knew you were there or not. But what you done since, mate—don’t put that on us. You could have had a great life.” He let out a snort and jerked an arm towards the grey block walls and bare wooden floor. “Not like me. Mine ended when that nosey bitch fingered us.” His tone and manner shifted abruptly. He leaned forward, his gaze boring a hole into the space between them. “She saw us, bro, not you. Remember? You got a fuckin’ ‘get out of jail free’ card and you flushed it down the crapper.” He laughed through his teeth and shook his head. “Stupid shit. So if you’re coming to me like I’m Father fucking Absolution, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Nick sits on the curb and lights another smoke. Across the street a boy plays with a golden retriever on the bookshop steps. The retriever bounds around the boy, tail wagging, licking the boy’s face, play-biting his hands. Nick admires their unspoken trust. But he wonders how this animal knows not to cross the line, not to sink its teeth into the boy’s small hand, not to tear open his flesh as its instincts are hard-wired to do. How, he wonders, can an animal incapable of recognizing its own reflection in a mirror, be capable of more self-restraint than he?

His thoughts turn again to the Ice Man, how he’d carried his wounded partner up the mountain that day centuries ago. Another primitive being with more humanity than he. Where did it all go wrong? Perhaps life was simpler back then, he thinks, the lines more clearly drawn. When nature ruled, man knew where he stood, knew his place in the scheme of things. Humans joined together, formed a tribal existence, had to in order to survive. It’s more complicated now, he thinks. People don’t need each other. Not in the way they once did. Nowadays it’s every man for himself. He recognizes the irony—man has beaten nature into humble submission but he’s lost his humanity in the process.

He looks again at the boy and the dog and a picture comes into focus. Even animals, he sees, have the sense to bond with those who will benefit them, those who can ensure their survival. He thinks about his deadbeat father, his drunken mother, and it occurs to him that Man’s greatest threats these days aren’t always on the outside. Sometimes the threats come from within, inside our own tribes. The very system we trust to protect us lets us down. So we bond to a different tribe just to survive. When our own tribe turns against us, he realizes, the system shatters and we splinter into a society of broken, self-preserving parts. A species of individuals. A society of broken tribes.

He wonders if maybe it was just that simple. It was right there in front of him the whole time, what the Ice Man was trying to tell him. To go back to the beginning. To remember what makes us human. To reconnect and start again. But how? he thinks. He can’t change the world, rewire the frazzled circuitry of human evolution. He is on his own. And on his own he can only change what’s around him, what he can see and feel and touch. Which, at the moment, is very little.

He draws on his cigarette, pulling the smoke into his lungs and holding it there. He hears Pastor Jim’s voice again in his head. “When you’re on the inside, Nick,” he said, making a wide sweep with his arm around the expanse of the prison yard, “you’re one of many—you’re the majority. When you’re in the majority, what you need to find is tolerance. But out there,” he pointed to the narrow strips of light between grey steel, “you’re on your own—you’re the minority. When you’re the minority, what you need to find is courage.”

He turns towards the shop and sees himself in the window. Reflected in the grimy glass he is shadow-like, without features or form. He exhales a misty grey plume and grinds the butt of his cigarette under his boot. He feels the cold metal of the knob against his palm but his hand is steady. Pushing forward, he quickly opens the door and steps inside.