Chapter 2: “The Forest,” part 2
by Tala Bar
Installment 3 appears in this issue.
Dar took a few days to recover her illness. By that time the wounded man had also recovered his health, freeing the Ancient One from his care. Dar took to walks with her in the forest, gathering material for her medicines and charms. The physician was astonished at the range of these remedies, which were both from vegetable and animal material. There were leaves, herbs and blossoms, whose scent was sometimes sweet and pleasant, other times sharp or even obnoxious. There were insects and worms, whose extracts would be used for poultices or drink. There were sharp thorns for digging into wounds to take out the poison and pus, and soft, large leaves for bandages. Some other means of cure Dar found quite exotic. After that experience, she could never again think of these people as primitive and without knowledge.
One thing she could never get used to, understand or absorb the principle of was the chanting of magical formulae, which accompanied each act of healing to make it more potent and effective. She thought about the extensive use of the computer she had made in her own ways of curing people, and remembered her disenchantment with its ultimate ability. This mental closeness between doctor and patient has something to be said for it. Maybe I should find a way of giving a personal blessing to suit each patient’s personality, to enhance their belief in my power to heal them, she thought, half joking to herself, half trying to enhance her own faith in her healing power.
Having accompanied the healer on her walks, Dar was allowed by the Ancient One to take part in some of her cases. Having witnessed the healer’s treatment of the man bitten by the jaguar, she was given the chance of treating a man who had been poisoned by a thorn stuck in his hip. It was not easy to get the people to put their faith in her hands, and Dar was gratified when she felt they were beginning to accept her.
“You will take over when the Ancient One dies,” Sharp Shooter told her after the latter case; the man had been a close hunting companion of his. These words confused Dar, who suddenly recalled the strangeness of her existence in the Amazon jungle. Other people felt in agreement with the hunter; they had been sensing for some time the healer’s reluctance to train anyone as her pupil.
“But you must know I am not going to stay here forever,” Dar said to the old woman one day, in her usual reverent approach. For some reason, she was certain the healer had known all along how and why they had come to that place. At the same time, she herself did not know in what way she and Nim could to go back to their own time and place and resume their interrupted course of life.
The Ancient One did not answer, only muttered under her nose. A few days later, however, Dar noticed a little girl attaching herself to the old woman, helping her carry her stuff while walking through the forest.
“Orchid Bud had just reminded me how old I am,” the old healer murmured in Dar’s ear on their way back to the camp. Hearing the little girl’s name, Dar suddenly wondered at the woman’s own original name; she could not have had her appellations of Healer or Ancient One as a young woman, she thought. But Dar did not feel daring enough to ask.
Orchid Bud was a very quiet girl of five or six. She was considered pretty by the tribe members, but had never been as sociable as other girls of her age. From a very early age, Dar learned, she liked to gather plants and little animals in the forest and play with them on her own; the healer had showed some concern about the girl’s fulfilling her proper function in belonging to the tribe. That function had now been revealed, after the Ancient One had began paying her more attention. One day Orchid Bud’s mother came up to the healer and, very hesitatingly, drawing her courage from the importance of the things she wanted to say, asked, “Are you going to teach her to be like you, Healer?”
The old woman looked long at the other woman, who was carrying a few-month old baby on her arms. Dar had noticed her before, taking great care of her own children and other women’s as well, commanding them in her soft voice and leading them where she thought they should go.
“I am going to try, Watcher, to see if she’s suitable of learning. It’s not enough to love them, she will also have to understand them.”
“I think she already understands a great deal,” the mother insisted.
“Would you, then like her to be a healer? You know it’s not an easy task.”
“Yes,” the woman said, quietly but decisively.
“In that case, I’ll take good care of your daughter,” was the answer.
It was evident that the people of the tribe were happy to see the Ancient One having a prospective successor.
“How long will it take her to learn to be a healer?” Dar asked when the woman was gone.
“As long as I live,” the Ancient One replied; “afterwards, she’ll have to continue learning on her own.”
It was around that time that Dar noticed Nim had relinquished her association with the children and turned her attention to the women. It was as if by her intensive playing with the children, she had at last fulfilled the phase that had been missing from her life, and was ready to continue to the next. Dar felt the girl had matured almost over night. Having satisfied some inner, hidden drive to compensate for the deprivation in her early childhood, once it was fulfilled she was happy to behave according to her true age. The tribe women, who had regarded her from the start as one of them and wondered at what they thought an odd behavior, accepted her now on equal terms.
Having relinquished her interest in children’s company and childish games, Nim had turned her attention to mothers and babies. That attitude had caused Dar, while relieved by the change in the girl’s interest, to start worrying about something else. Was Nim thinking, even subconsciously, about becoming a mother herself?
In their own culture, Nim was still considered too immature to have a child. In her capacity as a family physician, Dar had been involved in a number of cases of teenage pregnancy. In their society, at the onset of puberty, people — both male and female — would automatically be immunized against pregnancy; but the break-up of society had also resulted in avoiding responsibility of that kind. The outcome would mostly be a misery, as Dar remembered in sorrow. She was ignorant of most aspects of Nim’s life while wandering with her mother, did not know whether the girl had been immunized or not, and was not quite sure about asking her. It was not as if she were Nim’s official physician, and any question she would use could be felt as interfering. On the other hand, she was not at all certain what part of their other life would work in this imaginary jungle... Dar’s illness had proved to her that they were affected physically by this environment; what she could not tell was the relationship between the present they were leading and their original time...
From Nim’s behaviour, Dar had drawn the conclusion that she had not had previous sexual experience. She could not tell how Nim was going to behave in the women’s company, whether she would try to imitate their promiscuous way of life, and how much she would connect having a baby with the sexual intercourse. The girl was quite ignorant in some aspects of life, not from being stupid but from lack of interest or attention. Her mother, who had had many relationships, had been immunized and, as much as Dar knew, never got pregnant after having Nim. Dar, knowing she would have to talk to her on the subject at some time or other, felt reluctant to do so.
She sighed to herself. What sort of function was Nim going to fill for these foreign men? She did not really understand the relationships among the tribe people. Grasping only what they were saying directly to her, did not allow her to understand what was continually going on between members of the tribe. Everything here was so different from what she had known, so alien. Dar was surprised to find herself using such ‘racist’ terms, telling herself that these people were human after all, and they seemed a mild, non-violent race. There was also no sign that the men had any possessive attitude toward the women or children; any possessive instinct they had seemed to be directed to things they had made themselves.
She did not think the men were actually aware of their part in impregnating the women, though the women had a vague idea of the connection between sex and pregnancy. As far as she could tell, the term “father” did not exist in their language. The word “mother,” on the other hand, was applied generally to any grown woman, particularly after she had had her first child. There was a special term for suckling mothers, who were in the habit of exchanging their babies as the need arose. Dar was fascinated when she realized that the tribe’s women acted as a collective mother to all its children up to the age of nine or ten, when they attained a tentative maturity before their official rites of majority.
It was when Little Mother’s time arrived to give birth that Dar’s stay with the Amazon people reached its peak. Contrary to what she had read about ‘primitive’ tribes, the birthing woman did not take herself away from the people to accomplish that feat on her own. Dar was amused when she discovered that the process took place in full sight of the tribe, as if they were needed for the purpose of acknowledging the new addition to their community.
It was a ceremony she was not likely to forget. The laboring woman took her place on a stone seat, set not far from the fire. She sat with her knees bent, her thighs spread wide open to allow the newborn to drop freely into the basket put on the ground beneath her. During her labor, she was not left on her own for a moment; she was attended first of all by the Ancient One, with the assistance of one or two experienced women. Other women surrounded them at some distance, uttering words and sounds of encouragement and comfort. The rest of the tribe, men, children and mothers with babies, kept away, watching but not taking part.
Dar, standing among those, watched with interest. As a family doctor, she had also qualified as midwife, mainly for the purpose of assisting in emergencies in her clinic. As she watched now, it became clear to her that Little Mother was in some difficulty in realizing her nickname. After a few moments, Dar decided to take action. She crept stealthily forward to have a better view of the process of birth. The young woman had seemed healthy, with no signs of high blood pressure and or an especially narrow pelvis; the physician decided that it must be the baby who was in trouble. The healer, Dar noticed, was doing nothing to interfere with the labor to help mother or child; she continued with her chanting, using a gradually strengthening voice, with the other women repeating after her. Dar had noticed before that behavior of the healer’s, of letting Nature take its course for life or death without interference. She assumed that in such cases of human powerlessness, the choice must be that of the Great Mother herself.
The baby’s head, in the meantime, appeared between the birthing woman’s thighs, blue in the face with the umbilical cord encircling its neck, preventing it from dropping freely. At this moment, all thoughts were gone from Dar’s mind and she pushed her way through the crowd. The others, even the healer, instinctively stood aside, recognizing authority in action. Dar kneeled beside the laboring woman, gently took hold of the lolling head and, with a slight pull, managed to release it from its strangling knot. Immediately, its whole body popped out and dropped, not into the basket but into Dar’s hands. Red hue replacing the blue of its face as it cried out its first breath.
The chanting had stopped. From healer to the youngest girl they all stared at Dar in silence. Some women helped Little Mother to rise from her seat and get to the spring, where they helped her dip in the water and washed her all over. Dar approached them then, holding the soiled baby in her arms. They sprinkled water on his body, face and head, then wiped it with large leaves. The new mother was led to a hanging hammock, and one woman took the baby from Dar and lay it in his mother’s lap. Little Mother closed her eyes, her child lying on her belly, held safely by her instinctive protecting arms.
Dar, seeing she had nothing more to do there, turned and approached the Ancient One, who had sat down in her usual place by the fire. The old woman, signing the physician to sit by her side, said very quietly, “You are as great a healer as the Great Mother herself.”
Dar was not sure whether the words were said in appreciation, or had she heard a tinge of mockery behind them. They sat together in silence for a while, then she mustered courage to ask,” You would do nothing, then?”
“Sometimes, it’s better to leave things for Mother Thora.”
“But do you always know when you should leave it to her or act yourself?”
The healer gave her a sharp look, then shook her head. “You are right, it’s not always easy.”
They continued to sit together in silence, Dar pondering on the ways of these people, still without a complete understanding.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar