Chapter 2: “The Forest,” part 2
by Tala Bar
Installment 2 appeared in issue 95.
Flickering sun rays seeping through the thin foliage above the clearing fell on Dar’s eyes and she opened them, wondering where she was. Trying to remember the events of the previous day, she was unable to recall last night, or even having gone to sleep; the last thing in her mind was her sitting not far from the wounded man and the Ancient One treating him. She looked around her.
She must have been moved in her sleep because none of these two was in her vicinity. Other people were moving around in the clearing, but she was not sure what they were doing. The children looked particularly gay, shouting and calling to each other, and she noticed she was unable to understand words that were not spoken directly to her.
As she sat up, Nim came hurrying toward her. “They are moving away, to another spot in the forest,” the girl said, panting.
“Why? I thought they had all they needed here.”
“It’s the Ancient One’s verdict, after the man had been wounded. She said this spot had become unfavourable and they had to move, otherwise the Spirit of the Forest was going to avenge the killing of the jaguar.”
Dar rose and went over to the stream for her morning ablution. Washing in the fresh, flowing water was still novelty enough for her to feel not only refreshed but also physically content. She relieved herself at the edge of the forest, looking nervously around as she tried to avoid both humans’ and animals’ company. Then she joined the little tribe on its way to find another clearing for their camp.
The trek was long and arduous, and later Dar was unable to recall to mind all its details, only remembering some of the wonders and some of the hardships they had gone through. There were large ants and other crawling insects, which ate their way through the thicket. She thought she saw enormous strange creatures flying about and was not sure whether they were insects or birds. She shivered at the feeling of strange eyes peeping at her through the thicket. Weird, cacophonous sounds pierced her ears, leeches hanging from wet leaves attached themselves to her legs, and insects bit at any part of her body. She remembered that once or twice they barely avoided deadly snakes.
They had passed through a patch of sticky bog, where thick trunks of fallen trees blocked their way; sharp thorns and poisonous nettle stung the bare skin, leaving patches of swollen redness on people’s bodies. They walked from sunrise to sunset, occasionally resting on their feet; and at night they camped at any place which was relatively cleared, huddled together with the torches lit and a few men standing guard.
Each member of the tribe carried something or other. The women carried the babies tied up to their bodies in slings, holding rolled mats on their heads; the men carried the older children and had water gourds tied on their waist, shooting pipes on their shoulders and clubs in their hands. Dar pointed out to Nim the scarcity of their possessions, enabling them to travel light and easily from one place of camping to another. She walked with the Ancient One by the side of the stretcher carried by two men, where the sick man was lying drowsily, his eyes half-closed. He was quiet most of the time, only moaning a little when the old woman renewed his bandage. She talked to Dar, telling her what she was doing while gathering more of the raw material on the way.
Nim walked beside a young woman who looked not older — perhaps even younger — than herself, whose belly stretched almost to a full pregnancy. Even more amazing was that from time to time she approached a toddler of three carried by one of the men, who must have been her elder child. Nim learned that the young mother was indeed called Little Mother, because even before she had given birth to her first child, she was in the habit of caring for children not much younger than herself. She had become pregnant as soon as she reached puberty, was a happy creature who preferred taking charge of the children, playing with them and watching over them, while their mothers were busy gathering food, carrying water and cooking. Dar wondered how all this was done naturally, with no one giving orders or delivering instructions.
On the second day of the trip, Dar felt a sharp sting on her shoulder. Instinctively, she hit the place to kill the biting insect, and found a large creature unknown to her stuck to her body. Trying not to think too much of it, she pulled it off and threw it away. In the evening, though, she felt a slight dizziness. Still ignoring the signs, she attributed her feeling to tiredness from the walk.
At the end of the third day the tribe arrived at a place relatively clear of trees. The undergrowth was not so dense there, and a small stream flowed at the bottom of a flat dry land. Through the fog in her mind, Dar had an idea the place looked almost exactly like the first site of camping, having the impression they had been walking in a circle and arriving at the place they had vacated three days before.
Although they seemed to have travelled a fair distance, Dar was also surprised to notice the peak of Thora Mountain, which could still be discerned at a similar distance through the forest’s foliage. Perhaps it is the mountain which is the center of their life, she mused. The mountain must have been situated a long way away if it could be seen in the same way as before, and all the tribe’s wanderings might have been done in an invisible circle drawn around that sacred point. As if they were always careful never to lose sight of their Great Mother and Protectress, whose head peeped at them through the foliage and whose water encircled her mountainous body, she thought, instinctively using those mythological terms she had only known from books.
* * *
The Ancient One signed to the carriers to put the stretcher down, and said they could stay the night. In the morning, she said, they would investigate and find out if they were going to use the place for a longer stay. Dar fell heavily on the spot she was standing at, not paying too much attention to her companions. She fell into a heavy sleep, which was disturbed with nightmarish, inexplicable visions. She woke in the morning with a high temperature, an overall aching body and a feeling of inertia. Nim came over when she saw her companion lying down when everyone else had been up and about, and immediately called to her friends. After a little while the old healer came over.
The woman examined Dar closely, and the physician, in her muddled mind, thought there was no difference between her behavior and any modern doctor in the Medic Center. I’m not sure she would be able to find this kind of disease on the computer, she thought, vaguely. When she tried to talk, though, the Ancient One signed her to keep silent.
“I can see the bite mark of the...” Dar not only did not understand the name she quoted, she was even unable to pronounce it in her mind. “Pity you did not tell me yesterday; I could have dealt with it on the spot. Now, you’ll have a long and painful illness.”
“Will she live?” Nim asked anxiously.
“Of course she’ll live,” the healer answered with a slight contempt. She was obviously unused to doubt in her ability. “But she’ll feel strange for a while, she will see all kinds of things that are not there, which she won’t be able to understand.”
It was that event that had clinched in Dar’s mind the difficulty in deciding what was real in what she saw and what was imaginary, finally deciding to accept everything she saw on trust, wait only for the results of that trust.
The healer had put her choice of poultice on the bite and Dar, lying on her stomach with her head on her folded arms so as not to disturb it, continued to watch with interest the goings-on in the clearing. The people’s first task was to clear some of the more high and dense undergrowth; then they dug a shallow pit at the center and built a fireplace, using some rocks they found lying around. But instead of lighting the fire, they proceeded to hang the hammocks; the women then arranged their cooking paraphernalia around the fireplace, while the men settled at a little distance with their equipment for hunting.
After that, when all had been arranged, the Ancient One rose, took a gourd and sprinkled water on all sides of the clearing and on everything in it, murmuring a blessing. She then approached the fireplace, sprinkling water on it too, while bowing toward the mountain that peeped out from behind the trees. She signed to one of the men, and he came and started arranging the fire, first the small twigs with some dry leaves inserted among them, then a few thicker logs on top of them. He then chose the two pieces of wood used to make fire, sat beside the old woman and started working them in his palm. When the spark caught on the dry leaves he used to feed it, he gave it to the healer, who inserted it carefully into the fireplace, again murmuring her usual chant. As the fire caught, a flow of murmur ran in echo throughout the watching tribe.
The ceremony of consecrating the site over, the people went back to their regular occupation, treating the new place as if they had lived there forever.
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar