Bewildering Stories

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chapter 2: “The Forest,” part 2
installment 2

by Tala Bar

Installment 1 appears in this issue.

“Don’t you think us monsters, like the others?” She asked, feeling the provocativeness of her question.

“You wear covering over your bodies. You are very tall and the color of your skin looks strange. You have to excuse ignorance,” the old woman explained, and Dar wondered at the rationality of her words.

“We did not mean to intrude. We wouldn’t mind going back to our own... place.” She obviously did not know how to describe their own place to these people.

“No,” the old woman said, “I’d like you to stay for a while.” She made a sweeping movement with her arm, and Dar found it very easy to understand that she was giving them permission to do whatever they liked there.

She turned and followed Nim with her eyes. The girl’s eyes, she noticed, had been attracted by the children playing.

“Aren’t they cute?” She cried. Seeing that Nim was ready to rush and join them in their games, Dar recalled what Nim had told her about her joy in looking after her adopted brother Col.

“Be careful how you behave with these people,” she murmured, trying to stop the girl. “We don’t know anything about their customs, their taboos. We don’t even know they really exist... Let’s try with the women first, see how they accept us.”

It seemed that, while they were talking to the old woman, the others had made an attempt to return to their various tasks. Not, however, without keeping their excitement, which simmered under the surface. Dar and Nim approached the women who were crouching, cooking; these raised their eyes, making signs on their faces and bodies with their hands.

“What are they doing?” Nim asked Dar, whispering.

“I think it’s like what people used to do in the old times, like crossing themselves, for instance.”

“They don’t think us monsters, or demons, like the hunter did, do they?”

“Let’s wait and see. At least, the old woman does not think so.”

The cook, gazing at Dar and Nim, said with a quivering voice, “Sharp Shooter says the Ancient One said you’re not monsters...”

Dar managed to smile at her, shaking her head.” No. We are just people from a faraway place.”

“What are faraway places?” Inquired the woman, but Dar kept shaking her head, unable to explain.

“Did you lose your trail among the trees?” Asked the other cook. She sounded polite, and not as curious as the first one. Dar, understanding her words perfectly, answered with a short “Yes”.

“I can’t get used to the idea of their seeming so real, you know,” Nim whispered in her ear. “There’s nothing dreamlike about them, they look so solid.”

“No,” replied Dar, “but I have an idea that’s part of the dream. I know they don’t exist anymore, they are all in the past. None of us is here, it’s all in your own dream, you know.”

“But I am wide awake!” Nim insisted. Dar fell silent, watching what people were doing.

One woman rose and approached the hunter, who was sitting with the men. She had a dried gourd in her hand, which she offered him to drink from. Dar could hear her talking to him, but was unable to understand her words. The man took the gourd, lifted it above his tilted head and let the liquid pour into his open mouth. Fascinated, Dar watched him swallow a few mouthfuls. When he had given the gourd back to the woman, she came up to Dar and handed it to her.

“It’s good,” she said, “it’s been cooling in the water.”

How is it that I understand her now, but not when she spoke to the hunter? the physician asked herself. Hesitating, she took the strange vessel in her hands. The liquid inside it gave out an odd fragrance of overwhelming potency. Dar shut her eyes for a moment, but knew she could not offend by rejecting the offer. She lifted the gourd and tried to take a sip. It was more difficult than it seemed when the hunter had done it, and she spilled most of the liquid on her clothes. The little that had got into her mouth burned her palate and throat and she coughed, making a supreme effort to swallow it. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she had to take some time before she was able to open them again. Passing the gourd over to Nim, she whispered, “Be careful; it’s a very strong stuff.”

Gingerly, Nim took a sip and twisted her face. “I don’t like it much,” she said, putting the gourd on the ground. Dar had the impression that the girl’s reaction was not as strong as hers was.

“It needs getting used to,” she agreed.

“I’m going to join the children now,” Nim announced and rose before Dar had a chance to prevent her.

She looked after the girl, trying to understand what they were playing at. ‘Children are children everywhere in the world,’ she mused. She did wondered at Nim, though. The girl was much older than the children of the tribe, none of whom seemed over the age of ten or less. It did not prevent Nim from running around with them, shout and laugh like them. They had stopped for a moment when she approached, at first standing at some distance, as if wondering how dangerous she might be. Then they came up to her, touching her clothes, grabbing at her long, golden hair. At last, they formed a circle around her and danced, as if she was some kind of totem pole. Nim, with a great presence of mind, broke the circle and joined it, laughing. It took only a moment for the children to start laughing with her, rather that at her.

Dar pondered about Nim’s behavior. In her wanderings with her mother, she thought, Nim could not have had much chance of playing with kids her own age, taking the opportunity to play anywhere she could. That’s how it had been with Col, that’s how it was here now. Abandoning the subject at last, she turned to talk to the women beside her.

“What is it you’re making?” She asked the one crouching at the hot stone. “Roots of...” the woman answered readily, her voice high and sharp as the hunter’s. Dar thought that kind of voice would be quite useful to penetrate the forest’s thicket.

But she was unable to catch the name of the plant. Knowing nothing, though, about roots used for cooking, she was not at all surprised at not grasping it. No one from her circle of acquaintances was in the habit of cooking raw roots, Amazonian or any other, and she did not think anyone on Earth had done that for a long time.

The woman was talking. “It’s good,” she said; “d’you want to try?” She offered.

“Later, perhaps,” Dar answered, not sure at all what was going to happen to her and Nim in that place. She had also been warned by the taste of the drink, and hesitated to try anything more unless necessary.

She sat on the ground, feeling her knees rather too old for crouching, and looked curiously around her. The woman nursing the baby, she noticed, had got off the hammock and was approaching the cooking area. With astonishment, Dar saw her holding out the baby to her, as a kind of offering. It was completely naked, its male gender plain to see. Taking hold of him, Dar sniffed him gently. She was overwhelmed by his scent, which was combined of all the fragrances of the forest, something wild and enchanting, very different to what she recalled her own children’s was. Suddenly, the memory assailed her; she swooned, the tears welling up in her eyes. Blinded, she gave the baby back to his mother.

“You cry?” The woman said, wondering.

Dar shook her head, trying to hold her emotions in check. “What’s his name?” She asked, hoarsely, swallowing her tears.

“He hasn’t got any yet, too young. When he grows, we choose a name suitable to his nature.”

Dar noticed the language she seemed to discern as used by the natives had no grammar or syntax to speak of; she was aware, however, that it could not be their own language. What she was receiving must have actually been the meaning of what they wanted to convey, directly from their mind. Her own rational mind recoiled again from that thought and she pushed it to the back of her mind, to be dealt with at a later date.

She sat quietly for a while, absorbing the atmosphere around her. In spite of the noisy forest close by, the mental ambience was that of peaceful acceptance of life as it was. There was no particular sense of fear, though she thought there were many dangers around them. But these people had taken danger not as a continuous menace as she would but as an integral part of life, something that was naturally there, from which they should try to escape.

“Aren’t you afraid, living in such wild place like that?” She asked, absurdly forgetting that they had never known any other kind of life.

The woman shook her head. “Wild? It’s home. But what kind of home do you live in?”

Nothing like that, she thought. I suppose they are fatalists, doing nothing to prevent what might come.

“We have Mother Thora to protect us,” added the baby’s mother, pointing at a mountain partially visible among the trees at a short distance from the clearing.

“Mother Thora?” Dar queried. “Who’s she?”

“Our Great Mountain Mother,” answered the first woman, her voice sounding a strange mixture of reverence and affection.

A boy came running, demanding a bite to eat. The cook used a sharp rock to cut a slice, giving it to him wrapped with a wide leaf.

Nim came over, sweating and panting from her running around. “It smells nice,” she said, hungrily, and the woman offered her a portion too.

“Don’t you want any?” Nim asked Dar.

“Woman eat with adults, when hunters and other women come back from forest,” the cook said, calmly, full of assurance.

“But children eat at any time?” Asked Dar curiously.

“Children eat when hungry; it’s best for them,” was the explanation. Dar pondered on the custom, while the woman added, pointing at Nim, who was devouring the food. “Is she woman or child? She looks like woman but behaves like children.”

Nim looked at Dar, a question in her eyes, and Dar laughed wryly. “For us, she is still a child even if she looks almost a woman,” she replied, unable to explain.

“Can she work like a woman?” Asked the cook.

Dar hesitated. “I don’t know her well enough,” she admitted.

“She not your daughter?”

Dar shook her head, overtaken by her emotions again.

“I’ll go back to the kids and you can go on talking about me,” Nim said, moving away in the direction of the children. Dar continued to sit with the women in a companionable way, as if she had known them forever.

After a while, she sent a glance toward the other side of the central fire, where the old woman was sitting. She gazed at her curiously, noticing now she was busy crushing some leaves, without letting go of her pipe.

“Who is she?” she asked her companions, feeling there was something special about that person, who had kept herself apart from the others.

“She is the Ancient One, the healer,” answered the cook.

“Is it all right if I talk to her?” Dar asked, then added, hesitatingly, “I am a healer myself.”

The cook scrutinized her and shrugged. “I don’t think there’s harm in it. You can try; see if she’ll talk to you.”

Dar rose and slowly approached the old woman, crouching beside her. The woman raised a pair of dark brown eyes, very deep and mysterious, looking at her for a long time; at last, she said, “You are also a healer.”

Astonished, Dar could only nod. Could the woman have overheard what she had said to the cook? She looked very old, thin and wrinkled, her skin loose over her old bones and her dried breasts hanging to her belly. But her eyes were sparkling with eternal youth.

“Come, I’ll show you,” she said in a low, deep voice, turning to the piles of plants lying around her. Dar saw they were arranged separately, arranged according to their types. A mixture of smells rose from the various plants, some strong and spicy, some bitter, others sickeningly sweet. Having been educated in the general usage of synthetic medicine, Dar had no idea what she was looking at. Fascinated, she watched the Ancient One, who was murmuring their names and characteristics in a monotonous voice, not expecting to understand or remember much of what she was hearing.

Sudden shouts burst out from the forest, breaking the tranquility of the clearing. “He’s hurt! “He’s hurt!”

Two men came rushing out from among the trees, carrying another on their arms. They brought him over to the Ancient One, laid him gently by her side on the ground. Dar was immediately aware of a deep gash on the side of his abdomen, and the man’s fast, shallow breathing. She wondered what might have caused such a wound, recalling the occasional knife would she would sometimes had to treat in her clinic. But she did not think these people’s stone knives could make such clean cuts. She then looked at the two men who had brought him, managing to catch scraps of their words directed at the healer.

“The jaguar was invisible, too fast, too hungry,” the two men were speaking very quickly, not too coherent, interrupting each other. When she saw they were running out of breath, the Healer signed them to stand away, let her do her job properly. The two men gasped, breathed deeply and fell silent.

“Now,” the Ancient One raised her eyes at them after her initial checking of the wounded man,” what of the animal?”

“We shot him with our arrows,” one of them said, more quietly; “we had to kill him because he was coming for us. But we are afraid his ghost must be appeased. His mother, the Spirit of the Forest, must be quelled, otherwise her wrath will be on us.”

“You should not worry about that; you’ve done the right thing, and the rest is up to me. You go away now, and I’ll see to Jaguar Skin’s wound. Such an unfortunate name, it seems.” As the men turned to leave, the Ancient One started murmuring to herself, going about her business of healing. Dar had that rare chance of watching a natural healer in action, and it was nothing she had ever seen in the twenty years of her medical career.

The old woman cleansed the wound with water from a gourd by her side; then, carefully choosing among her plants, she laid them on a broad leaf and poured more water over them. As they sizzled, the Healer pressed them together and very gently lay them on top of the wound, all the time murmuring a chant, which Dar could barely hear. She was enchanted.

There must have been some tranquilizer in the poultice, or else the man was being hypnotized by the chant; because, as Dar was watching, his eyes closed, his breath slowed down and soon he was fast asleep. The Healer, crouching by his side, kept watch over the sick man with eyes closed, chanting and moving her aged hands over his body, not touching him. Dar kept her curiosity to herself, waiting to see what happened. Whether it was her weariness from the events of the day, or because she herself was hypnotized by the Ancient One’s chants, soon her eyes grew heavy and she also dropped into a deep sleep where she was.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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