chapter 2, part II, “The Forest”
by Tala Bar
Installment 4 appeared in issue 96.
There had been a slight change in the attitude of the tribe people toward her after Little Mother’s baby was born. Before, they had respected her as a person accepted by the healer; now, there seemed to be some fear involved in that respect, mixed with plain, obvious admiration. It was clear that they did not know how to regard a person who defies the ways of Nature. Most of the women, though, particularly those who had known the occasional hardship of labor and the loss of a child, treated her with open admiration they had not showed her before. Little Mother plainly regarded her as a savior, treated her like her closest relative, a friend or even a mother.
With the healer, however, relationships had become a little strained, never to return to the former simplicity of teacher-student. A few days later, though, the Ancient One seemed to have undergone some change in her attitude, approaching Dar with a request to learn. But she was careful to keep secret her new kind of relation with Dar, as if not wanting to lose the tribe’s respect for her.
One night, the tribe members were sitting around the evening fire, munching their supper made up of roasted nuts and grasshoppers wrapped in large, succulent leaves. One of the old men, who was a self appointed storyteller, had just finished telling about one of the endless exploits of the hero Walker with his twin-brother, and the people were relieving the tension caused by the story with joking and laughing freely.
The Ancient One then raised her voice, calling out the names of some of the older children: “Fast Runner, Tree-Tall, Nutty Nut; it is time for you to start the test for your initiation into maturity. You have learned how to make a shooting-tube and arrows. You have learned how to cure the poison for the arrows, trace the game and shoot it down. You have learned how to look after yourselves in the forest, find water in the wet plants and food in the undergrowth. You have learned how to defend yourselves against the jaguar and the poisonous bees and the flesh-eating plants. Now it is time for you to prove you have mastered all this learning. Tomorrow, you will go by yourselves into the forest and you will not come out until you have proved your resourcefulness. Only then you can be qualified to become full members of our tribe. Now, come and have the blessing of Mother Thora.”
The three children rose and approached the healer. She raised her withered arms, called out and continued with a murmuring chant, the words of which Dar was unable to catch. The Ancient One then made a sign, the children rose and left the circle of the tribe, secluding themselves for the night prior to their early rise. They were gone when the tribe members rose with the rising sun.
A few days later, far short of the estimated number of days needed to fulfil their task, two of the boys — Fast Runner and Nutty Nut — returned, bursting out of the forest, running and shouting. It took some time to calm them down and find out what had occurred in the jungle, and what had happened to their friend Tree-Tall. Each of the survivors, however, told a different tale; besides the fact that the third boy had died, it was very difficult for the tribe members to learn what had really happened.
An uncomfortable feeling arose among the people as they listened to the boys’ stories. According to Nutty Nut, a fierce competition had developed between Fast Runner and Tree-Tall, during which the former shot the latter in the eye and killed him on the spot.
Nutty Nut’s words, however, were vague and confused, reminding everyone the usual confusion of mind that had granted him his name. Fast Runner flatly denied the accusations, arguing that Tree-Tall, in his bravado, had climbed a tall palm-tree claiming he could catch a monkey by the tail. The boy fell from the tree to his death after a thorny leaf had pierced his eye.
After a few minutes of charge and countercharge, the two boys fell silent, letting the adult members of the tribe consider what had been said. The oldest active hunter then said,” Take us to the place where Tree-Tall fell.”
The two boys took the hunters to the spot where their friend’s body should have been found; but when they arrived there, all they found was his clean skeleton. It was obvious that the forest’s ants had been at work, devouring his flesh clean. In accord with the claim of both boys that Tree-Tall died by something piercing his eye, no mark was discerned on the leftovers of his body.
The men called the healer, who conducted a brief ceremony of chanting and dancing around the corpse, in order to appease its ghost and prevent it from walking the forest and hinder the people in their hunting and gathering. The old woman then picked up some large leaves, saturated them in one of her potions and wrapped the bones carefully and reverently. After that she invited Tree-Tall’s birth mother to join her, and together they took the gory packet to the little stream and let the flow of water carry it to some mysterious destination.
* * *
It was not unusual for the people of the tribe to find their death in the forest. If the event had happened the way Fast Runner had described it, no one would think too much of it. But he had been accused of murder, and that was an almost unheard-of act.
After some deliberation, Dar realized that the Ancient One was unhappy with the state of affairs, and in the end a cleansing ritual for the whole tribe seemed to be necessary.
Dar and Nim were included in the procedure, being considered by now full members of the tribe in their different functions. The ceremony included sprinkling of water blessed by the healer in sight of Mother Thora; eating of some obnoxious material gathered at night; smearing the body with some smelly stuff; and endless chanting of words Dar was never able to grasp.
Feelings, though, continued to run uncomfortably, even after all that procedure. Some people would not let go, tending to take up the story of the one boy or the other. It was obvious to Dar that Fast Runner, who had been accused of murder, had sensed the way some people were feeling about him, and she appreciated his difficulty in living among such small community. One evening, things came to a head, when the boy rose to speak. Dar realized how mature he looked now, only a few weeks after he had been sent to the forest to find his way by himself. Although not much older in age, his whole stance looked both pondering and decisive, in a completely unchildlike way.
In the hush that fell, Fast Runner bowed toward the healer and said, “Ancient One, I dare to speak to you. You are a clever woman. You are a good healer. But you are also a woman who does no hunting. And you are very old, as old as Mother Thora, almost. How can you, an old woman and not a hunter, know what happens in the forest, where men go hunting? Women do not hunt, they gather roots and nuts and eggs and insects for us to eat, but they do not hunt monkeys. And you, Ancient One, you do not even gather food, only medicines. I, Fast Runner, have been gathering food with the women as a child. And I have been hunting as a boy. Now I am a man, and I know everything about hunting. I have lived alone in the forest. I am like the hero Walker.”
He stretched his not quite fully-grown figure, pulled back his shoulders and rapped his chest in the manner of a gorilla. In the quiet that prevailed, he looked around as if to see what impression his words had had on the people. Then he went on, “That is why I have decided to leave the security of the tribe and to go and live on my own. I am going to live the way I want, not the way the Ancient One tells me.” He paused again, waiting for a reaction. Dar could see clearly the worry in his young eyes, but no one said a word. Yet.
Fast Runner then continued. “I am also taking Little Mother and her child with me. She will be my woman and I will take care of her and the child; and she will take care of me, for that is what a woman must do, serve the great hunter who provides her and her children with food. Together we shall create a better, larger, stronger tribe.”
The tribe’s people, who had been listening politely because that had always been their way, were evidently growing impatient with that upstart boy who had presumed too much. At this point the men started jeering, and the women scoffed, deriding his novel ideas.
“We did not see you bringing many monkeys to eat,” Sharp Shooter called out, who was the hunter Dar and Nim first met in the forest.
One woman said quietly, “Little Mother, though good with children, is not very capable in gathering food.”
“She will not need to do it,” Fast Runner retorted, “all she will have to do is bear children and look after them and cook for me and for them.” Dar, being a well educated woman, thought such words used to be spoken quite a few centuries before her own time.
The Ancient One had not said a word. She sat making marks in the soil with her long, bony finger, humming to herself. Little Mother, carrying her baby close to her body, rose and came to sit besides Dar.
The physician turned to the young mother. “Do you really want to go with him?” she asked, “away from your tribe, away from your home. Won’t you be afraid to live alone in the forest?” The girl seemed in some difficulty to understand the meaning of the term “home.”
“He is so brave and spanky,” she said candidly, half smiling; “he is like a child himself who does not know his way about. He needs looking after, and I am going to look after him so he does not get lost. One day, maybe, I can bring him back to the tribe.”
No one said a word after that. Little Mother rose and came to stand beside fast Runner; then both of them found a secluded place to sleep the night. In the morning they left, with the other tribe members looking after them with a feeling of disdain. Some of the men and women threw sticks and dry leaves after them, but Dar noticed they did not use stones.
When the two had vanished among the foliage, Dar whispered aside to Nim, “I fear that is the beginning of the end.”
“What’d’ye mean?” The girl asked, astonished, looking around her as if expecting some terrible thing to emerge out of the forest and destroy them all.
“I’m sorry,” Dar said, hugging the girl. “Forget it. Look, I think the Ancient One is going to make an announcement.”
The old woman needed Orchid Bud’s help her to rise, leaning on her stuff. For the first time Dar realized how old she actually was. The Healer turned to her people and said in a calm, deep voice. “We have to forget those two, as if they had never been born in our tribe. We shall have a celebration. Go into the forest and gather all that we need for that purpose.”
All life turned toward that new goal. The men made an extra effort at hunting, besides trying to get the usual monkeys; as a special treat, they managed to catch a large anteater, which would add variety to their diet. The women were busy in their gathering, collecting extra quantities of roots, nuts and leaves, some of them especially hard to get. Then they sat together to prepare the feast, tenderizing the meat, crushing the roots into flour, and, in particular, fermenting large quantities of fruit into a kind of drink used only on special occasions. There was no date set for the celebration, which was appointed for when everything would be ready.
It took a couple of week according to Dar’s calculation to complete. On that particular day the women did not go out gathering, the men did not go hunting, even the children stopped their playing and running around. Since morning small groups sat together, painting and decorating the faces and bodies of themselves and of others. Nim was exalted by the practice, and joined with the women for that purpose. It has been some time since she had shed her dress, to go about naked except for a pair of short colorful underwear, which had been greatly admired by her friends. Dar, who had never stripped completely, preferred to stay aside and watch. The Ancient One was busy doing some things with Orchid Bud, probably preparing for her own part of the ceremony, and Dar did not feel she could interfere.
The next morning, everyone gathered for the celebration. A couple of men started beating on fallen tree trunks which were used as drums; another man and two women piped on reed flutes, producing a thin, monotonous sound. Some men and women started moving to the music, creating a curious, meandering dance. Dar saw Nim joining in the dance, quick to learn the steps. It lasted for hours, it seemed to Dar, before they dropped, exhausted, around the fire.
The feasting began, food was eaten with great gusto, fermented liquid drunk lustily. The full gourds were passed from person to person, each taking a long or a short draught as their capacity allowed. This time Dar joined the celebrants, careful to only taste the drink. Unlike the first drink she had tasted, this one was both very sweet and very potent. She noticed Nim drinking more freely, thought of warning her but in the end refrained, finding it difficult to get to the girl through the people surrounding her. There was a confused intermingling of men and women, and Dar noticed that drinking was accompanied by mutual touching, turning more and more into bold and open caressing as the drinking continued.
Eventually, caressing turned into open embracing; couples sharing a gourd poured its content not only into each other’s mouth but also over their heads and bodies. They were obviously using the drink to its last drop before starting drinking each other’s body juices. It was then that Dar noticed Nim taking part not only in the drinking but also in the sexual orgy, hugging with one of the young men. Dar, not even sure of his identity, felt helpless. She felt the need to call out to Nim, to warn her to take care.
Instead, she took the gourd again, drawing a longer draught this time. Something in the drink must have affected her in a curious way, filling her with a sense of — perhaps not outright desire, but certainly well being — which prevented her from interfering with the girl. The last thing she noticed was couples twisting together on the ground in the heat of copulation; by then she had lost sight of Nim in the darkness. A great mist fell over the world around her; she leaned back, closed her eyes, and soon fell into a deep sleep.
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar