“Ra?” Bo asked before turning to lean all his weight into the back of the laden ox cart.
“Ra was eaten by a bear,” Poy replied as if it was the most obvious answer in the world.
Bo was expecting a different answer. The game was to ask about a member of the town that had gone missing and then your partner would respond with a humorous or absurd explanation for the person's long absence. Ra had just explained that uncle Yurt hadn’t died on the pass last spring, but was actually living with a herd of feral goats so he could be closer to his natural children. It was Poy’s turn to be funny. Instead, Poy was suggesting that Bo was being sacrilegious.
Bo rocked his ox cart back and forth until it rolled out of the muddy pile of snow that still clung to this shaded part of the mountain trail. With the oxcart moving again Bo straightened his long body and turned to his brother Poy and asked. “Wait, was Ra really eaten by a bear?”
“Yes, big hairy bitch of a bear. He met her right outside the village. You don’t know this Bo?” asked the older brother, his tone very serious. In the high snowy peaks in which Poy and Bo’s people made their home many people went missing and their bodies were never found. The law of their people stated that a person was “never truly dead to this world” until at least two people had seen the body. To Bo and Poy’s people death was treated more as a steep incline than a cliff. Everyone knew the missing were dead, probably.
The mountains were harsh and the Gods rarely helpful. But the missing weren’t treated as dead. The Gods didn’t like it when you mocked the truly dead. And while the Gods took little interest in helping Bo and Poy’s people, their judgment was like an avalanche: there was no stopping it.
“When did this thing with Ra and the bear happen?” Bo asked with trepidacious concern in his voice.
“This time last year when we were delivering the swords to the river. I understand why no one told you. You see Ra was on his way to see your wife when he saw that big hairy bear bitch sitting out by the rot-pile. Then Ra thought to himself, I can do better than Bo’s wife. ”
Most of Bo and Poy’s jokes about the missing involved sex with animals. “You had me, Poy, you had me.” With that, the two brothers continued towards the valley to deliver steel swords to the low-folk Kings in time for the war season. The Gods had given Bo and Poy’s people the secret of steel under one condition. It was forbidden that a member of the tribe ever use a steel tool to kill another member of the sacred tribe.
The valley was colder than the peaks even though it was approaching noon. The sun had been shining on the peaks all morning and had warmed them. The narrow valley had been in shadow. The dogs were scared of the valley today. The dogs were smart. The low kings demanded the steel as soon as the rivers swelled with the spring melt, but that was also the time for loose snow and great waves of snow that toppled off the peaks. Both Bo and Poy knew that travel in the early spring was dangerous. They also knew it was profitable to be the first sword sellers of the season.
This danger is why their father had always taken the journey alone or with only one other companion. The old man didn’t fancy a true death. A missing man's ghost didn’t wonder the mountains. One could not be haunted by the missing, one could not be accused of the murder of the missing because his spirit could not testify before the elders. And a missing man’s wife didn’t have to turn her husband's holdings to his male heirs. Thus, Bo and Poy didn’t have to share the profits of the forge with their “goat fucking uncles”. They worked the forge that still belonged to their mother and father, even though no one had seen their father in six years.
As they guided their stupid fearless oxen and worried bear-baying dogs down the switchbacks of the shadow-dark valley Bo stepped around a deep pit for frozen mud by standing on a rocky outcropping on the edge of the trail. Shortly he would remember not having seen such a spot on this trail last year. Because when he placed his foot on the boulder it tumbled away as his feet scramble against the loose snow and gravel on the mountain side. The 160-pound bear-bayer barked, yelped and pulled against the tether in Bo’s right hand. The spike of his steel walking staff was still planted in the ground of the trail. Bo’s experience had allowed him to slide his grip down the spiked staff rather than pull against it. Were it not for the pull of the panicked dog and the grip on the base of the walking stick with the spiked tip plant firmly in the earth Bo would have slid down at least 100 feet.
The front hem of Bo’s fur tunic had been pulled up around his face and his exposed torso pushed against the cold wet rocks. Blinded and with a mouth full sweat stinking furs Bo pulled himself back up onto the trail. When he pulled his tunic down there was Poy standing over him with one of their crafted great swords in one hand his spiked walking stick in the other.
Bo snorted, “How is a sword going to help me brother?”
Poy stood over his brother not speaking, not looking to the wagon or the dogs, but rather just staring with furrowed brows at Bo’s face. The moment lasted longer than it should have and Bo scrambled into a sitting position while backing instinctively away from the man with the sword. Finally, Poy turned back to the wagon. As he pushed the sword back into the wagon Poy said softly, “Let’s wait until after we meet the King’s men.”
“Wait for what,” Bo asked sternly.
Poy turned around with a rye smile and a nod of the head, “Can my wreckless clumsy little brother wait, wait until we get the swords to the river before he kills himself. You scared the soul out of my body for a second there brother.”
“What was the sword for Poy,” Bo asked again as he stood up, planted the walking in the ground and brought his fists up to his chest.
“I was going to plant the sword in the ground and then hand you the knob of my walking spike,” Poy said exasperatedly.
Bo stared at him for a moment and finally said: “I would be the only guy you tried to knob this week?” With the tension broken, Bo turned to calm his scared dog. Bo continued his teasing, “Trying to knob your own brother. You need yourself a wife Poy”
“Of course, a wife has worked out so well for you Bo.”
“Marriage hasn’t changed what I do one bit. Not my marriage, not anybody’s marriage.” As Bo said this he kissed both his wrists and pointed to the sky, apologizing to the Gods for sins.
When the sun reached its zenith the valley filled with light and shortly afterward the sounds of trickling water and the roar of the river below took over. That night the brothers camped on a wide spot on the trail just above the valley floor. They placed the oxen between them and the dogs on the side of the fire. A desperate leopard might attack an ox, and snow tiger or cave bear wouldn’t think twice about it. But the dogs and the fire were usually enough to discourage the attack, if not the beasts' attention. At one point during the night, Bo rolled over to throw some more dung on the fire when he noticed his brother returning to the camp from beyond the dog line.
“Relieving myself,” Poy said to the implied question.
Only the most harden goat-herders and mountain men defecate in their own campsite. Yet most would wait till morning and wouldn’t go alone unless something was wrong. “Do you have camp sickness,” Bo asked with genuine concern.
“No I am fine, I wasn’t far, go back to sleep.”
The next morning the brothers broke camp at dawn and a few hours later met the King’s men by the river crossing as they did every year. Bo did the talking. Bo was taller than Poy and handsome. Bo knew this. He drew confidence from it. He was particularly proud of his straight white teeth. Most adult men in their tribe had lost at least half their teeth by adulthood. But the God’s apparently gifted Bo with a perfect smile and they protected it. That smile always seemed to charm and calm the otherwise high-strung stewards who led groups of soldiers into these wild mountains and left as quickly as possible. As always, Bo sold the oxen and the carts along with the swords. The journey from the river to the village had taken nine days. But without the oxen, they might be home in three.
With lighter feet and quicker steps Bo led the two of them back up the trail. As the approached the campsite from the night before Bo asked “Taggerathahay?”
“Oh, Taggerathahay is not dead, he just went to a village two valleys over. With that ridiculously long name, it has just taken him this long to introduce himself to everybody.” Poy replied. The missing Taggerathay’s name was an old joke around the village. Then Poy asked, “Dole?”
“What?” Bo asked. The fate of Dole was getting to be an old joke around the village.
“Dole?” Poy repeated loudly.
“You know Dole’s not dead. The pervert just likes to watch other men with his wife, so he is hiding in his larder, peaking out while the village takes turns with her.”
“No!” Poy shouted, his voice farther behind Bo than it had been a moment ago. “I killed Dole. I smashed his head in with our heavy tongs and buried him under the rot-pile. Koo, she was going to be my lover, Koo only wanted to be with me, she told me, we could live in her house together if her husband Dole just disappeared. But then you went and smiled at her.”
Bo turned around and there was his brother standing on the trail with one of their swords in his hands.
Poy continued shouting as he moved forward. “Bo, you ruined her. You made her fall in love with you and then you told the whole village about her.” The dogs jumped and yelped and ran around them in circles not knowing what to do.
Bo looked at the heavens and then kissed his wrists. Bo’s voice was desperate and scared but it was not fear of his brother “Poy you can’t use steel like this, not like this, the gods will…”
“The Gods?” Poy said and swing out with his sword.
Bo raised his steel walking stick to block the blow. The staff collided with the sword's blade close to the hilt and the impact sent shards of steel into the air and produced a terrible high pitched cry that echoed up the valley. Bo pushed with his staff against his brother’s blade, and the force of Bo’s parry sent Poy slipping stumbling toward the edge of the terraced road.
Bo looked desperately at the steel forged tool in his hand then again glanced at the heavens. “I will not fight you brother and will not fight with steel,” Bo shouted over the sounds of the scared dogs and running water. Then he hurled his steel walking spike off the road and towards the valley floor.
Poy heard nothing. He advanced on his brother and swung out; striking Bo in the face with the flat of the sword. Bo fell backward like a stone as teeth, blood and a gasp of air flew out his mouth.
The dogs stopped their confused whine and yelps, and started barking and growling aggressively in defense of the fallen master. Poy snapped commands at each of them and they stood down like the dogs they were.
A bloodied Bo sat up on his elbows. “They are going to know Poy, they already know” Bo growled through broken teeth.
Poy thrust the sword into his brother's chest until the force of his sword was rigidly stopped by the friction bone and flesh against the blade. Poy spoke to his brother as Bo’s body shook and gurgled out its last breath. “One body? One corpse? In these mountains? No Bo. This time next year I will be telling jokes about you. ‘Bo?’ ‘Bo’s not dead he just caught his reflection in a still pool of water and hasn’t been able to look away.”
With that, Poy reached down grabbed the bag of coins off his brother’s belt. Then Poy took the body of his brother into his forge hardened arms and hurled both corpse and sword off the road.
Poy gathered up the dog’s tethers and started home. As he walked, he wondered which story he would tell. Would it be the avalanche or the tiger that took his brother?
It wasn’t just one or two people that saw Bo’s corpse . Every member of every Steel Mountain village eventually walked over to the edge of the valley to see the great corpse of Bo, brother of Poy and son of Hok. It is still there today. Still being defleshed by the carrion eaters of the mountains. The Gods, as is their way, did nothing to protect Bo. But they made sure that everyone saw Poy’s crime and the instrument of his brother’s murder.