The Gardeners had shown him the general direction, but it was up to him, with his keen sense of smell as his only guide, to carry out the sampling. Accompanied by the expectations of those left behind, by their hunger mingling with his own, by their hope that sustained him in this dark tunnel, Chile advanced slowly, digging the earth with great care so that it would accept his intrusion and remain benevolent. He forced it under his stomach and then to his feet and pushed it back to the clan members responsible for carrying it away, out of sight under a thick bush. Eager to complete his mission, intoxicated by the power of his young and healthy body, he tried to prevent any vibrations that might reveal his presence to the Disgraced. He worked backward more than forward and set about clearing the tunnel, his only means of escape, and to make its walls more compact.
When he finally reached the Brood, his eyes welled with tears, and he resented his fragile emotions. With infinite care, he began to extract the first tuber, said the prayer of Thanks and Repentance, cut the rhizome with his sharpened nails, unfastened his pouch, placed the golden apple inside it, and set out to find the next one. He had trained for many hours since he was young to perfect his technique: fumbling without jostling, removing without pressure, cutting with a sharp, precise stroke so no movement would spread to the leaves.
After a while, satisfied with his harvest, Chile realized he needed to stop. The Secret People always left the plant enough to survive and even reproduce. He closed his pouch and was about to set off once again when he happened to brush up against a large tuber that seemed to be waiting for him. He hesitated... Such a specimen could feed a youngster for an entire day, maybe even two... He would not open his pouch but would slip the tuber under his shirt. He cleaned it, cut the rhizome and…
A blow of unprecedented violence cut into his shoulder. Chile stopped himself from screaming, flattened himself on the ground, and retreated. But the blows kept coming, on his skull, his arms, his torso... The protective earth was turning into an enemy. It was crumbling, blinding him, getting into his mouth and nostrils, blocking his only way out. Hands grabbed him and lifted him to the surface. Blinded by a piercing light, he closed his eyes. Screams rang out:
“I told you, you didn't listen to me, you never listen to me... I saw the leaves shaking and the blood staining the shovel...”
“Get the rope, we’ll hang him... over there on that tree...”
They dragged him to... a tree. He had seen them in cave paintings and knew how to use their roots, but he never imagined they could reach such heights.
“It’s repulsive! It reeks …”
“Look at its pale skin, those red eyes, and those nails like an animal’s claws...”
Their shrieks mixed with bursts of coarse laughter. With tear-filled eyes, Chile managed to catch a glimpse of his attackers. A man with an excrescence sprouting up from his skull, so large that it rested on his shoulder, and forced him to tilt his head, someone with an atrophied bottom jaw, another covered with a thick fleece, a woman with an ear in the middle of her forehead... He closed his eyes. Their screams pierced his eardrums.
“The thief... we'll teach it a lesson...”
He felt the coarseness of the rope around his neck. He wanted to tell them they were wrong. That the Secret People had never stolen, that they had preserved the tubers for generations and disseminated them while the Disgraced had long since forgotten the sacred art of Gardening.
“Let me live… I will work for you...”