ROBERT WALLACE PAOLINELLI
"Hsing hsiang chin, hsi hsiang yuan."
Human beings draw close to one another by their common nature, but habits or customs keep them apart.
Arturo sat by the dark green river contemplating the crocodiles sunning themselves on a small island in the middle of the not too wide river. A man could swim across in about two minutes, he thought; the current was not swift; it was rather sluggish. But the crocodiles. He was beginning to understand the jungle, so he resolved to walk downstream and ford at some shallows. The jungle was bending his will and psyche in ways strange to him, and it was so subtly automatic and progressive; there was no way to fight this slowing of mind. Arturo was losing his sense of time. Perhaps it was the heat, the constant anxiety, the deprivation of companionship which made him fall away from the chronology of the outside world, a world he was wondering if he'd ever see again. How many days had he been in this green hell? He had tried to keep count and had been able to make a tally stick for thirty-six days or so; but the heat and his need to survive pushed his memories of the days out of his mind. He lost his tally stick and he stopped counting.
Arturo awoke from the concussion he'd received when the cargo plane he'd been a passenger in lost its power and crashed. A ruptured fuel line doomed the flight and the pilot could no longer control the plane loaded with the geological surveying party (and its equipment) of a mining and mineral exploration company returning after having been in the almost forgotten highlands of Minuanua, the remotest of the provinces of X, for many weeks of mineral and petroleum exploration.
The heavy machine dropped with great speed; the crew and passengers were frozen with fear. Those who could, cinched up their safety belts, held fast and waited for the natural laws of motion, gravity and destiny to take their courses.
Tall, sturdy trees groaned as the plane crashed! atop the three story canopy, onto the intertwined treetops; the plane hit at an odd angle with such force, that the machine split in two. The aluminum-hulled plane first cracked in half like an egg, then disintegrated into several other pieces, spilling out its contents of humanity and equipment. The force of the crash had torn all the men out of their safety belts--except for the chief surveyor; his safety belt held to the partial bulkhead which fell to earth with him.
For a few moments the heavy pieces of fragmented airplane and half mangled bodies hesitated on the tree tops. A grave battle of balance was being played out between earth and sky. Then down! went machine and men and equipment, breaking stout branches and vines as they tore their way to the ground for the ultimate destruction of the machine and the fulfilling of the destinies of the men.
There was a grinding, deafening noise, an ominous sound of cracking, crushing, tearing, stretching. It was loud and it roared like a canon. Arturo was thrown out violently from the plane, striking his head and rendering him unconscious. Down he went, first crashing into feeble young branches reaching for the sun, which broke easily by the velocity of his falling. He broke through a crisscross of lateral branches which slowed his descent somewhat; but he continued to fall; his indifferent body was now commanded by the dictates of gravity.
A tangle of vines slowed him further; one wound itself around his leg; he continued to fall; the vine looped on his leg tautened; the vine was not thick and not very secured to the tree--it snapped--but not before the weight of his falling body made the vine so taut, that the femur was pulled from its socket, and down he went, crashing again and again into branch after branch, until the laws of falling objects quit as Arturo's body fell, by the grace of his fate, onto a long abandoned, giant anthill, more a miniature mountain. The tall anthill rose up into the air like a thick cone and it had a wide base. The anthill was made out of leaves, mud and twigs and pebbles and bark and grass, all glued together by the mucilaginous juices of the ants, some water from the jungle, and dried by the sun.
Arturo smashed into this primitive adobe cone, crushed its untenanted labyrinth of tunnels and chambers, returning its elements back to the earth. Destruction brought him to earth and destruction saved his life.
He never knew how long he lay in the rubble; when, however, he regained consciousness, it was to pain, confusion, dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, weakness and uncertainty. For several hours he was conscious, but only of a golden twilight, as might be seen through thick gauze. He did not know where he was or how he had come to be where he was. He was not aware of his injuries, only the muted, golden light which pulsated just behind his half closed curtain of consciousness.
Gradually, he became aware of space, time and self; and the self which had forgotten itself awoke to itself in pain. Arturo moaned; he wanted to move his body, but he wasn't sure what to move; he was entangled in a mesh of dirt, seat belt, vines, branches, even spiders' webs, thick, and in front of his eyes. Pain enveloped his entire body, but it was his leg and throbbing head which hurt most. Little by little, he understood the source of his agony, and he began to untangle himself slowly, slowly, agonizingly so.
He lay exhausted with his torso half up against the tree branches which had followed him to earth. He surveyed his area: the tail section of the plane lay about fifty feet from where he lay, and scattered here and there, broken pieces of supplies and equipment which had been securely tied down inside the plane. With darting eyes he searched the wreckage for fellow survivors; he saw only a leg sticking out from behind a large fragment of the fuselage. He called out; but no answer rejoined; he called out louder, still louder. No answer came. Was he the only one alive?
His leg throbbed, his head felt as if a hot poker was being pushed in from his eye to the back of his head; he was helpless and frightened. What he wanted most was to see another human being, hear a kind voice. He called out again, but no ears heard his furtive cry.
In the middle of the first night he woke up all in a fever. Alternately, his body broke into a paroxysm of shivering in the hot, humid, molding forest air. He thirsted, but he had no water, and, if he had, he had no strength to bring the life giving liquid to his mouth, for all his moving and his yelling for succor and the fever enervated him to feebleness. Arturo lay in this fever-languid state for more days than he could remember, but he did have moments of clarity, and in one of those moments, when his senses were keen, he understood that if he did not soon try to help himself, he would die. The idea of dying alone in the jungle made him tremble more than the fever wracking his body. Hot tears dropped from his swollen eyes. He was hurt and he was dying, and that fear of death, especially dying alone, now turned to determination to live. To die alone would be another cruelty heaped onto the suffering he was going through because of his plummeting through the trees to the ground.
Arturo breathed as deeply as he could through his nose. His head hurt even more as his oxygenated blood coursed through his fevered veins. With a great effort, he pulled himself upright, rested, and examined his leg. He ripped the pants leg, but really, there was not much left to rip. He felt the bulge of his dislocated hip. He moved his leg ever so little, and all at once an electric-like pain shot up his leg and, piercing every nerve ending in his body, he collapsed, drained of his short-lived strength, back into weakness; but he would not allow himself to be stopped. Again he mustered up his will and his strength and was soon gritting his teeth while he stretched his torso to ready himself for what he must do next.
He was not a surgeon, but he knew enough to do what he needed to do. He anchored his foot, sat up straight, put his hands behind his back, then lifted up his buttock as he pulled his body backwards to return the dislocated ball to its socket. His maneuver was successful and his scream echoed through the trees and silenced the chattering animals near about, then, he passed out and fell into a deep healing sleep.
Arturo awoke to the twilight of the tropical forest. Insects of the night were flying in the crepuscular light, and nocturnal birds and beasts were bestirring themselves. Tiny gnats flew in front of his face pestering him, but he did not want to waste his energy shooing them away; he suffered the gnats and tried to concentrate on moving himself to the fuselage for refuge from the night, for he now feared ferocious animals which might pass while he slept.
Little by little, he lay prone on the ground and started to crawl. Now and then he stopped because of pain and fatigue, but he would not give up. When he was almost to the protective fragment of the plane, he heard a voice call out, a familiar voice: The raspy voice of Ugo, the Italian geologist, the director of the surveying party.
"Ugo!" he called out in his loudest voice, "It's Arturo! Where are you?"
"I don't know. I can't see." came his reply.
"Keep calling out; I'll find you."
Arturo's strength was beyond imagining. He looked for something to use as a cane. He found, he knew not what--a piece of the plane or a broken piece of equipment, and with a firm grasp on his makeshift cane, he pulled himself up off the ground and stood precariously balanced on his uninjured leg. "Ugo, keep talking!"
"Over here, over here," said Ugo, over and over again. And through the quickly fading light, his fever burning his body, his leg swollen and painful, he followed the directive calls of his injured colleague. "I can her your footsteps, Arturo," called out the jubilant voice of Ugo. Arturo came upon the geologist. There was just enough light left to see him lying prone with a heavy piece of the hull holding him face down, trapped by the weight and size of the plane's fragment.
Arturo let himself down as painlessly as possible, finally settling as close to the trapped Ugo as he could. He reached out and touched the geologist on the shoulder. Ugo's free arm sought out the hand of his benefactor. The hands met, gripping tightly in a new-found brotherhood. "Anything broken?" asked Arturo. "I don't know. I feel numb all over, especially my legs--this damned thing on my back is putting a lot of pressure on my spine."
Arturo tried to see the problem, but now the light was gone. The screams of the night jungle reached a high pitch and the two mens' hands gripped tighter and Arturo grasped his make shift cane with the thought of using it as a weapon. But the strain of his having crawled soon drove him to close his eyes and lose his grip on Ugo and his crude weapon, and again sleep pulled him away from the world of pain and took him to a deep repose, wherein he dreamed strange dreams of being inside a giant, fire-filled mouth of some ancient demon god.
Ugo awoke first. He turned his head and saw the slumped profile of his companion. The face was scratched and caked with thin dried rivers of blood and covered with an overlay of smeared green and brown stains from crushed leaves and dirt. Ugo imagined his own face was no better. Ugo had been the only one who had not been thrown out of the plane; instead, as fate would have it, he'd made the fall to earth strapped to a piece of the hull and it wasn't until almost the last second of the fall that he was (at last) thrown out when the protective hull hit a low branch and turned him out, snapping the belt that held him. The hull fragment pinned him down and then he remembered nothing, for he'd fallen unconscious and did not awaken for a long time.
A light morning rain fell, Ugo hearing the familiar sound of rain as on a metal roof, found it soothing. His condition being what it was, he thought his enchantment with the sound of the falling rain on the metal hull which kept him pinned to the earth rather absurd, macabre. Yet the pitter-patter of the rain made him oddly relaxed, recalling more favorable times with his wife and family sitting on their screened porch and how they would sit in silence just listening to the rain on the corrugated tin roof of their back porch.
The rain awakened Arturo. The gentle, cooling rain soothed his fevered face and moistened his dried lips. Without even opening his eyes, he stuck out his tongue to catch the merciful droplets of rain. He lifted his face upward, opened his mouth and sucked in the thirst quenching rain water. He opened his eyes and saw that rain had collected in a dent on the fuselage. The dent was only a few inches deep, but for Arturo, deprived of water for so long, it was a mountain tarn, blue, sparkling (as) under an alpine sun. He bent close to the water and drank. The water was warm,. After he had drunk his inch of water, he called to Ugo, "Do you want some water?"
"Yes, I'm so thirsty."
Arturo sucked up the remainder of the water into his mouth and lay down in front of Ugo, who saw Arturo's bulging cheeks, and he opened his mouth to receive this gift of life. He swallowed. "Thank you. Is there more?"
"Wait," said Arturo, who pulled himself back up. The dent was half filled. "I'll wait until my fountain is full," he said. For him the dent was a fountain of life for both Ugo and himself.
Back and forth he went taking water into his mouth and bringing it to his thirsty, trapped friend, like a mother bird flying back and forth from her nest bringing drops of water in her beak to her helpless fledglings.
At long last both their thirsts were slaked, but the gentle rain did not cease. Down, down, down it came, making the earth soggy and for the two survivors another discomfort.
"Ugo," said Arturo, "I've got to get this heap off you, but I'm weak and I can't move too well with this leg of mine. I can't let you stay like that."
"What can we do? I'm helpless--it's up to you, up to you..." His voice trailed off as Ugo became aware of how truly helpless he was. He too would die of slow starvation and dehydration.
Fear is a great thing: It can freeze a person to inaction, or, stir one on to victory. It was the latter Ugo chose: but he needed help. "Arturo, listen. I'll die if I stay here and so will you. I know you're hurt--but you are ambulatory. You can get this thing off me if you follow my directions. Listen carefully: Get something to use as a fulcrum--a stone or a piece of debris. Find a heavy stick to use as a lever..."
Arturo listened and even before Ugo was finished, he'd selected the fulcrum, an odd shaped piece of metal from the plane. He selected a heavy branch for a lever; he hobbled as best he could to bring the fulcrum into position; it was not easy, but he tolerated the pain to save Ugo's life.
At last he was ready. Balancing on one leg, he pushed down on the lever with all the strength he could muster. He pushed with his whole pain-filled body, pushing it to its limits. Brute strength and the laws of physics prevailed, and when the pry was level with his knees, he summoned every ounce of strength left in his body; and with a mighty shove from him and a pushing with the lever, over went the entrapping piece of hull, and Ugo was freed from his prison. Arturo used the pry to help himself slowly to the ground where he groaned and moaned and lay down supine to rest.
After resting, he turned to Ugo, who, in spite of having the hulk lifted from him still lay as he had. "I can't move, Arturo; but don't turn me over."
"But how can I leave you in that position?"
"My spine must have been injured. If you move me too quickly, I may die instantly. Make a backboard first, tie me down, then, turn me over."
Arturo did not question. With a makeshift crutch, he limped about searching for what he thought would be suitable material for a backboard. It took him over an hour of painstaking work just to gather the material. In the process of scavenging, he came across the bodies of three others. They lay like crumpled rag dolls; their arms and legs mangled, crushed, missing. He had to avert his head.
With wire and a long, wide, but thin piece of aluminum from the plane, Arturo tied the wide aluminium strip on Ugo to overhang, cap a pied. He made sure no part of him would move when he turned the backboard he'd created. But first he rested.
His strength renewed, he very gently turned Ugo over. Ugo moaned a little. For the first time since the crash, Ugo could see the sky and feel the filtered sun on his face. If he had to die then let it be on his back with his face toward heaven.
With an improvised cup in hand Arturo went in search of water, which he found in puddles and dripping from the trees; he gathered what he could, and after giving water to Ugo, he went amid the rubble looking for food. He remembered there had been a case of canned meat, a case of canned milk which he had helped load onto the plane himself. He found nothing on his first search; but he had to rest before he could start again. While he rested, he recalled that there had been firearms and ammunition in a thick wooden box with heavy metal hinges and locks; surely such a sturdy box would have survived intact. The box had been strapped to the inside bulkhead with wide nylon strapping. He would keep his eyes out for the box as he picked through the rubble for the canned food.
He searched: He had to crawl into the bushes, and in doing so, he found the body of the pilot whose body lay stretched out half on the ground, half on the low branches of a thorn bush, the thorns of which had dug into his clothes and his flesh, leaving him stuck like a grotesque target full of darts. Arturo saw the long bush knife still strapped to the dead pilot's leg. With some effort, he took off the belt which held the knife and scabbard; he felt somewhat safer now that he was armed. Using the long blade, he poked into the debris until at last he found the food; he also found a box of wooden matches. He smiled; now they would have fire. He loaded several cans of each into a piece of his shirt, and, with his makeshift sack slung over his back, he made his way back to Ugo who had never stopped admiring the sky. He knew he was going to die; but he didn't care--somehow it seemed the correct thing to happen. Thus, when Arturo approached and called out in a happy voice, "I've found the canned food. We won't starve," Ugo smiled, just smiled and motioned a greeting with a weak wave of his hand.
Soon Arturo had a fire going; and while he waited for the flames to die down, he took the heavy jungle knife and split open a can of meat which he immediately fed to the helpless Ugo, who took the food, but he knew no matter what or how much he ate, he would perish just the same in the jungle. There wasn't even any need to cry.
Arturo very carefully punched two holes in the top of a can of milk and placed it by the fire; the two of them would have warm milk. With the heavy handle of the knife, he purposely dented two cans of meat and put them in the fire. When the heat would cause the dents to pop out, the contents would be hot. Already things were looking up, he thought.
They ate the hot food and drank the warm milk. Arturo couldn't seem to eat enough. He trudged back to the source, but with a large remnant of plastic sheeting scavenged from the debris. "Now I won't have to go back and forth so many times," he said to Ugo who only smiled.
Ugo's entire body was now numb, even his facial muscles; he could masticate, but he felt nothing and tasted nothing.
The fire felt good, and with a full belly Arturo started to doze; soon he was asleep in place, where he slept many hours of a deep sleep, the sleep that heals.
While Arturo slept, Ugo died. The injuries to his spine and to his organs had taken their toll. When his breathing became difficult, he used his labored breaths to commend his spirit to God. And with his final, conscious breath, he tried to say Arturo's name and wish him good luck; but the words went unspoken and he fell first into unconsciousness, then died a peaceful death.
Arturo awoke to another day an unwilling prisoner in a remote region where the chances of the wreckage being spotted from the air through the thick canopy of trees would be one in a thousand.
This thought was in his head as he opened his eyes--almost in surprise, for suddenly his vision seemed to be very sharp and for the first time he saw the beauty of the jungle, saw it as a gathering and clashing of colors and golden sunlight, when it could penetrate the thick foliage, seeming to spill its light out like a piece of sheer, rippling silk unfolding. He saw orchids: Deep purples with polka dots and soft wine red tones with pale hints of yellow turning into white. He saw a bird; he wanted to say it was a jolly bird, or so it seemed to him. This plump, almost chartreuse bird sat on a low bough and sang a cheery call several times then threw itself into the air with such grace that Arturo could suddenly appreciate dancing, something he'd ordinarily been indifferent to. The lighting dazzled his restored, clear vision and he realized his fever was gone. A smile appeared on his lips and all, relatively speaking, was well. He was injured, true enough--but at least he was still alive and he had food. He watched a leaf flutter to the ground; a breeze pushed it; he turned his head to follow the fall of the leaf; as he turned he saw the moving mass of ants on Ugo's face. He knew he was dead. The forest wasted no time. The sight of Ugo jarred him, destroyed his fantasy of light, flowers and delicate bird he'd so enjoyed, shattered his rationalized satisfaction. Arturo felt utterly alone. He buried his face in his hands, and in solitude wept the ancient lamentation of those who are lost with very little hope of being found. And while he wept, he dragged himself to the corpse and, as best he could, tried to wipe the ants off the late Ugo's face; but his act was a hopeless task; so, resigned to let nature have its way, he dragged himself back to his crude bed and gave himself up to the charm of the jungle as a way of denying the great sense of loss he suffered. What else could he do? There was no place to go because he didn't know where he was. As he gazed upon the magnificence of the light and the colors, he felt empty, lost forever to the world.
After a day he knew he would have to remove his position, for the stench of putrefying bodies around him was more than he could endure. He needed go get away from the scene of death, destruction and rot. He filled his plastic sheeting with canned milk and meat. He slung the bulky load over his shoulder. His crutch banging against the pilot's jungle knife he'd cinched around his waist, he made his way away from the scene of the wreck.
On the way to his new encampment he stripped the pants off the pilot whom he recalled was about his size and removed his own shredded pants and donned the tough canvas-like pants of the former pilot and in the process he also found a canteen.
Frequently stopping, he walked ever so slowly to a point about fifty yards away. He chose a spot under a broad-leafed tree which would help keep him dry. He settled himself in, then went in search of fire wood.
He ate again as soon as the fire was ready. Eating, it seemed, was the only way he could convince himself he would survive.
The days went by. He did not hurt as much and his leg was healing; he could almost feel the healing--he was sure of that.
As he grew stronger and more confident in his strength, he made repeated trips to the crash site to scavenge what he could. He'd found a small tent and pitched it; he found an inflatable plastic mattress and got light-headed blowing it up. He even found the guns. The sturdy box had been cracked down the middle, but still locked. Nonetheless, with a few whacks from his heavy knife, he split the box open. Inside were two 7mm, bolt action Mauser carbines and a box of ammunition for each. He slung one of the carbines over his shoulder and took both boxes of cartridges.
Back at his camp, he inspected the carbine, he knew something of firearms, for he was a military veteran and found the carbine to be in good condition. He slid open the bolt, loaded the carbine and chambered a round. Now, fully armed, he felt certain he would have a better chance to survive.
The days went by. With the carbine, he'd been able to shoot a small deer-like creature he'd stalked. The fresh meat gave him added strength. He was now able to walk with only the aid of a cane he'd cut for himself. He'd burned his crutch and felt better for that. His new mobility made him braver and every day he explored the surrounding area but always returned to his camp. However, one morning, when he knew he would not need his cane any longer, Arturo resolved to quit that place for good and try to walk back to civilization--wherever that might be.
For an entire morning he rummaged through the wreckage for supplies. He found a lensatic compass, another smaller knife, a jacket and a pair of boots. When he was ready he surveyed the area one more time, taking into his memory the destruction and the dead for whom he bowed his head for a few moments, then, with the compass needle pointing north, he left without looking back.
Meemai stole out of her hut in the middle of the night. In a water proof sack which she carried on her back were another skirt, flints, dried roots and some smoked river fish, some fishing hooks, moss for her menses, a blanket she herself had woven out of fine birds' feathers; she had sewing needles and small knives made from hand-polished bone which she'd also made herself. And at the bottom of the sack was the strange object called a book. The book belonged to the white man with whom she would flee to a place called the capital, and there, at last, she would be free from the ugly life she hated, but which she had had to endure because her people lived a rigidly traditional orthodoxy, unquestioned and rarely--if ever--challenged. It had been thus since time immemorial. The sexes had their places and their duties and responsibilities preordained for them; and because she was a woman she had to suffer the indignations imposed upon her and her sex which, at bottom, was more an indentured servitude. She knew no other way of life, yet deep in her heart she had always questioned why the women of her tribe had to be treated so oppressively. This had always been a most troubling secret she dared not share with anyone--that is until the white man befriended her, the one who had given her the book. She could only look at the pictures of the strange holy people whose names and stories her friend knew so intimately. Inside the book was written: "Pio Giuliacci, O.F.M., Roma."
The white man had tried to explain what a capital city was to her; and although the man could speak good Kweiwi, she could not fathom, had absolutely no conception of thousands of people and giant houses where people talked to one another through pieces of rope (as he had explained) and how people were able to move about at night because of continuous light.
Meemai and some other women had found the man in the bottom of a dugout canoe which had washed ashore at the very spot the Kweiwi women washed clothes, bathed their children and themselves. All the men, except for boys and greybeards, had been far afield hunting, but their arrival was imminent. The women had gathered, maybe a dozen kneeling or squatting at the smoothed, flat washing stones. The children scampered over the high rocks and saw the canoe on a small beach and started to go to it. The women, also curious, stopped their work and followed the adventurous boys. But when they saw a very strange man (if indeed he was a man and not a furry demon) was in the canoe, they were not so curious, and all stopped and stared with uncertainty at what seemed a man. One of the boys, without any prompting, ran to the village to get some of the grandfathers. The greybeards took spears and war clubs. Three of them approached, their spears raised. One of them asked of the bearded man in the canoe:--
"Who are you? What do you want?" And a voice from within the canoe answered, "I come in peace. I am not armed. Help me, I am sick." The old man stepped a little closer; someone was speaking his language, but in an odd way; however, the speaker did not resemble any Kweiwi man at all. "Where is your village, and how is it that you speak our language?" asked the old man, who now lowered his menacing spear, as did the others, and moved yet closer to the canoe. They were able to see that his hair and beard were all white. The lips behind the whiskers moved: "I am a friend of your kin, the Tamurones. I lived with them, that is how I know your language. Help me. I am harmless and very sick."
The old men were now squatting, looking down into the canoe. They looked closely at his strange garb. Hanging from the stranger's belt was a string of beads and on his feet were strange coverings. They did not know what to make of him; never had they seen such a man before. The old men started to talk among themselves. The women moved closer, cautiously closer, gauging their advancement by the mood of the old warrior-hunters. When the men sat the women knew there was no threat. "What shall we do with him?" asked one of the old men. Nothing (really) could be done without first having a council; but all the men were away. Their tribal code was rigid, and no one argued. So it was decided the stranger would be taken care of, but not to bring him into the village until after the hunters' return and a calling of the council. The elders dispatched certain women back to the village for food and told the boys to gather firewood.
Padre Pio heard all; and he gave thanks for the answer to his prayers for rescue. He understood the ways of these people and he knew his treatment would be fair until a council met and agreed to the contrary.
Meemai was one of the women sent by the elders and was told to bring things to make soup and to bring the lawila, the medicine bag from the council house. She did what she was told without question. From her own larder she took the last of some bones for broth. The lawila was fetched. She'd not failed to bring her big woven reed pot for the soup. When she returned to the canoe, the fire was going. Meemai picked out a spot, lay down her things and in not too long of a time she began preparing food for the stranger.
For some reason she was drawn to this strange old man. The other women, being reluctant to have a lot of contact with the stranger, Meemai took it upon herself to be his nurse.
For several days she cooked for the sick man; her meat and bone broths gave him strength. Meemai concocted herbal broths for him, too; she held the stranger's head and helped him drink the bitter, healing herbs. The stranger was not demanding; he seemed grateful for every small act, and he always had some kind word to say to her and to the other women, who, from time to time, wiped his face or fanned him; even the woman who put out a smudge pot to keep away mosquitoes and other pesky insects (considered the lowest kind of chore) he thanked for the smudge pot. Such politeness and gratitude from a Kweiwi man was not only unheard of but unthinkable. To Meemai's memory she could not ever remember a man to say thank you or show appreciation-tion for some act or some favor. Indeed, thought Meemai, he is a strange man, and she liked him, but at the same time she was afraid of him. She told no one of her sentiments.
She was at the stranger's side when the hunters came home. They had come a long way and had returned laden with meat which was placed in the middle of the village circle. Soon the whole village was there--all except Meemai, who stayed with the stranger who began to cough up black phlegm just when word of the hunter's arrival reached those at the river bank. She could not leave him. What if he choked?
Meemai's husband, Kwa-a, looked for her in the crowd. Protocol forbade him to ask where his wife was and why she was not in the circle with the other wives to welcome him. He was insulted; he was convinced every man was mocking him and every woman clicking her sharp tongue as only a woman could do when she was being smug about someone's personal life. Kwa-a was a man of passion, of deep need of ritual respect. He had killed an anteater and a tapir; now he could pretend he was a great man, for the hunter who kills the tapir was always awarded half of the animal's sweet fat and the hide which, when tanned, was soft and was considered exquisite and highly prized--the envy of both men and women--and his wife was not there to see the hunt leader give him the fat wrapped in the skin. Why was she not here to receive it from his hands? A tapir hunter never carried the reward; it was always done by the wife, and, if unmarried, his mother or some other female relative. Now everyone noticed her absence. Someone had to say something. Meemai's cousin, Sula, spoke up:--
"Maybe Meemai is sick from the stranger and that is why she is not here."
Stranger? Sickness? What had happend? Immediately the matter of wifely compliance to protocol was forgotten. The leader asked for an explanation. Three old men came forward, and in words and acting out, told the story of the stranger in the canoe and how he spoke their language and knew their kin, the Tamurones.
The ritual of the returned hunters came to a sudden end when the leader, and all the hunters following, turned and strode to the river. The women fell to the carcasses; tonight, and for several more nights there would be feasting, singing and dancing. The women made ready the meat while the hunters squatted around the canoe watching how the stranger stared out at them with clear blue eyes which they have never seen before. Kwa-a saw Meemai, she saw him and bowed her head (as was expected of her) upon seeing him.
The black phlegm had all been coughed out. She'd wiped him repeatedly, she helped him hang over the side of the dugout so he could spit out the poisons onto the sand. With a final paroxysm of coughing, he spat out a glob of dark, gelatinous matter; and when he had spat that out, his coughing ceased and color came to his cheeks; he asked for a little water. He seemed to be better and resting, so she let him be.
The leader looked long and hard at the priest; he'd heard that such white men existed, but he never thought he would ever see one. Before his eyes, however, was one. Meemai's husband looked down at her. "Go back to the village and help the other women." She docilely left and joined the women who immediately told her that Kaw-a had killed a tapir; but for some unknown reason she felt indifferent to her husband's honors. The bearded man had made her, somehow, feel differently about herself and her place in the hierarchy of the tribe.
The hunters came back with the priest: One carried him; he was not heavy and he was left to lie in the shadow of a tree, And there he sat while the village went about preparing for the hunter's feat.
Around the fire that night the hunters re-enacted the events of the hunt. The hunters' bodies and faces were painted and their bodies, wet with sweat, gleamed in the big fires, The women served food and a strong fermented drink made from a small yellow flower which grew in abundance throughout the forest.
Drums beat out a cadence; the men danced and the women and young girls sang. The priest had been fed and given water by Meemai. He was feeling ever so much better. The herbal medicines, the food and the tender care of the women, especially Meemai's, had brought about his recovery. He watched the dancing, it had a certain charm about it, but he knew it was based on animism which (so he felt) kept these people in a perpetual state of ignorance. When he was stronger, and after he had earned their friendship, he would preach to them the Christian message he'd been preaching in the forest for over twenty years. In his time he had founded many a forward mission; and although he was not sure how to get back to civilization, he would stay with these people until God gave him a mission elsewhere.
After the three days of feasting were over, the council met, and the ultimate fate of the lost priest decided. The debate went on, no one really knew what to do. He was not an enemy, he presented no threat, and he could speak their language--something remarkable to them. So it was decided he could stay. But in what capacity? He represented an-other mouth to feed. How would he earn his keep? But Kwa-a, who had taken a disliking to the humble missionary, said the stranger out to be driven from the village or killed, but he could put forth no good reasons for such action, so the council ignored his suggestions and the priest was allowed to stay. Nonetheless, the council was suspicious and decided to keep an eye on him. It was further decided that he should have an old abandoned hut at the edge of the village to live in, but he would have to supply his own food.
And so it was that Pio was allowed to stay, and when his health was restored, he proved to be a good provider for himself; he was never a burden to the villagers and he earned everyone's respect. He could fashion snares for small animals, fish and gather roots--woman's work--the men laughed at him for this. Little by little, he spoke of his religion; but the people would have nothing to do with it except Meemai. From the beginning she had been taken by him because he was so helplessly sick and gradually because of his kindness which never ceased to amaze her.
Often she would visit him and bring him some nuts, roots or other foodstuffs and they would talk and he told her of great countries and of great bodies of water across which were other great countries with immense villages filled with people. Gradually, her incomprehensibility gave way to credence and her curiosity was fired by the things he said. His religion, for her, didn't make too much sense, but she, nonetheless, listened respectfully as he related the stories from the four Evangelists. She wanted to believe him and the words he spoke, but the beliefs of her people were strong; and though she could be swayed, it was the inevitable scorn from her fellow villagers that she wished most to avoid, so she pretended indifference; but in her private heart she wanted to believe and celebrate the almost innocence and simplicity of his revelation.
A pregnant woman gave birth to twins: A boy and a girl. According to custom if both twins were boys they lived; if one should be a girl, then the boy was spared and the infant girl killed. such was their law. Padre Pio spoke out against this act; he pleaded with the mother who was now frightened lest she run afoul of the council. Pio, therefore, spoke to the council, They laughed at him. Why would an old man be so interested in saving a newborn girl's life? He was not to be believed, and word was sent out by the council to the father to dispatch the child in accordance with custom. And so the edict of the council was carried out.
Meemai was especially touched by this incident, for she had given birth to twins herself, in the first year of her marriage, a boy and a girl and Kwa-a took it upon himself to carry out that stupid, unjust and most wicked act as dictated by a tradition no one questioned, but carried out blindly, with no consideration toward the lives being snuffed out or the consideration of the mother. After that episode, although she remained a dutiful wife, her feelings toward Kwa-a and her people were never the same thereafter. A year later, the twin boy died. Everyone said it was from a fever; but deep in her mother's heart she knew it was the baby brother pining for his dead sister.
Something happend among the women after this incident; it wasn't any outspokenness--the women were too conditioned to being meek. No; it was the way they gathered in small groups and spoke in whispers, or that they began to bring Pio tidbits to eat more often.
The men saw all this--so did Kwa-a, who noticed his wife was spending more and more time with the old man, and when the next council met, he spoke out most vociferously against the priest, and the council was now open to his previous suggestion: Kill him--kill him before the stranger corrupted the women with his strange ideas and actions. The council remained a long time in silence until the leader had pondered Kwa-a's words; then the leader spoke:--
"It is fitting that this old man should die. Then let it be done. Kwa-a, since you have shown great dislike for the stranger, you kill him. Take him into the forest--and come back alone."
Kwa-a stuck out his chest with pride. Nothing would give him greater pleasure than to beat in the skull of that meddler with his favorite war club.
That night, in his cozy hut, he drink too much yellow flower liquor and in his drunkenness he boasted to his wife of his assignment. When she heard his words her heart almost stopped; but she could say nothing, for the council had decided. Kwa-a continued to boast that he would take the man early in the morning out to a cliff and kill him, then throw the body into the river below. Meemai feared for the old priest. What could she do?
With wile, she continued to ply her husband with more drink, and when he could drink no more, she lay next to him and made sweet sounds in her throat telling him to take her, which he did. And when he'd finished, he rolled over in a drunken stupor and slept. Meemai knew he would not wake up until the sun was very high. She slipped out of their hut and very cautiously went to warn her friend. But when she told him he did not show fear as she thought he would. "You must flee!" she begged.
"But where would I go, daughter mine? My people are very far away, and I am an old man all alone."
"Then I will go with you--now. Be ready to go when the moon goes behind the village."
Pio, who felt life deeply, wanted to live; and so he agreed to be ready.
Stealthily, she returned to her dwelling and made her preparations. When she had finished packing, she took one more item: kwa-a's long, sharp knife, which she tucked into her belt.
She slipped into Pio's hut so silently that the old priest, lost in his beads, did not hear her enter. She knew he was praying and did not want to interfere with his god--but if they were to be on their way, they must hurry. Meemai, gently touched his shoulder; he started, turned, and when he saw her face in the dim glow of the coals, he smiled that smile that had so endeared him to her. "Are you ready?" she asked in a whisper. "Yes," he whispered back. While he slung a sack over his shoulder, she made up his sleeping place as if someone were asleep there; and with that last act done, they stepped out into the night and made their way out of the village. At the riverside they got into the dugout canoe, the one in which he'd arrived, and pushed off quietly with two oars which they used to row down stream as fast as they could, making as little noise as possible.
Dawn found them many miles down stream--yet she still did not feel safe. The canoe was beached and hidden. They ate, rested, and when they wanted to speak they spoke in whispers. Finished eating and rested, and with Meemai in the van, they followed an animal trail into the thick, protective forest, By noon, she was still not satisfied and she urged the old priest to press on. He did as she exhorted, but at great expense to his already exhausted body; but he did not complain for he wanted to return to the safety of civilization so that he could set out another day and continue with his mission among this people from whom he now fled.
They walked and they walked, stopping now and then to rest and listen. When the fading sun darkened the forest, they found refuge in the hollow of a tree burned out long ago by lightning. After a bit of food, they lay on the ground exhausted. Pio was saying his prayers, but his great fatigue caught up with him, and, in the middle of his whispered orisons of thanksgiving, he fell asleep.
Their escape from the village was discovered. Kwa-a was in a rage! He beat his war club on the ground and made ugly sounds with his mouth which frightened those around him. The very idea of his having been duped and seduced outraged him. And that his young wife would save the life of a useless old man at the expense of her husband's honor and then to run away with him, threw him into further rages until the leader asked that four strong men restrain him lest his madness bring harm to members of the village.
After several hours, he calmed down, but his spirit was still agitated; and even when the council convened he could not stop; he insisted a party go after the two miscreants; but after due deliberation, it was decided that it was a waste of time to chase down an old man and a silly woman, neither of whom would last long--and good riddance. The leader promised to give Kwa-a his youngest daughter in recompense. Kwa-a was honored; but his heart was black with revenge.
He went off by himself and sat for a long time.
Suddenly he jumped up and quickly walked back to his hut. He took his war club and tied it to his belt; he gathered up a fist full of arrows and put them in a quiver. He looked everywhere for his big knife; he tore the hut apart looking for it; then he realized that she must have taken it. He let loose a volley of curses. The ultimate humiliation: That a mere woman would be so audacious as to take a warrior's knife! When he found her, he would cut her to ribbons with it. He took neither food nor water.
Her walked down to the river; Kwa-a intuited that they had escaped by canoe; when his intuition was confirmed, he swam across to the other side and followed the river bank downstream. No matter how long it took, he would not return until he had found them both and killed them. As he walked he slowed, picked up a flat stone, breathed on it, mumbled a prayer and hurled the stone into the river. His was a spontaneous ritual to bring him good luck; he didn't know why he did this, but he was a primitive man and he acted on primitive impulses. With this ritual he sealed his destiny and those after whom he sought revenge for dishonoring him, or so he imagined in his animistic trance.
That they had taken the canoe meant they were a long way ahead of him, but he didn't care; he would track them down no matter where they were. Kwa-a started to trot and kept up that pace for many hours; he was in excellent physical condition; moreover, he knew how to live off the forest. Yes--he would find them.
They walked. Meemai constantly urged the old priest on; she knew well the skills of her people; if, indeed, a party had been sent in search of them, then she and Pio would have to keep going for several more days at this fast march pace and try to keep the distance between themselves and the trackers as far as possible.
She was good at digging up edible roots and tubers; she knew which mushrooms were good to eat, which were poisonous and which ones, when eaten fresh, brought voices and visions. She knew where to look for sweet berries and knew the signs which showed where thick, fat grubs lived, and she used this knowledge to gather food and keep her and her companion alive.
Several days after they had left the burned out tree, they reached high country. Their ascent took them up through the thinning trees until at last they walked out into the sun onto a great plain. Off in the distance her sharp eyes could make out tall mountains, the height and length of which she had never seen; and on the peaks of those great mountains she could see white, but she did not know that what she saw was snow.
Pio asked for a rest, but Meemai insisted they move on until sundown, and then they could rest, and maybe build a shelter and even a small fire. They had had no fire since their nocturnal flight from the village. From childhood every girl in her village was taught that each woman must be responsible for the fire in her hut and that the fire must never go out; the fire was the heart of the home, and it was the woman's responsibility to keep the hearth fire burning from the time she reached puberty and was initiated in the first rites of womanhood. Meemai had liked the story of Ma-Heh-Ma-Heh, the original carrier of fire, who had rescued the fire from the water: Fire and water were having a great struggle and water was winning. Fire was exhausted; he had fought with giant flames, very hot, turning water into fine mist; but the more water that fire evaporated, that much more mist began to cool him off. Fire's mother, Earth, scolded him for being silly for wanting to conquer water with fire and his mother said, henceforth, he was to be treated like a child so that he would not make mischief and come to harm. So Earth sent her young daughter, Ma-Heh-Ma-Heh, to rescue the burning ember and constantly take care of him as does an older sister her younger brother while the mother is busy. Meemai loved that story and whenever it was told she felt strong and special as a woman knowing that the very god of the earth sent a woman, not a man, to be caretaker of the gift of fire. And even though her people knew how to make fire from striking special fire stones for sparks, each woman carried with her, whenever she traveled, coals protected in small woven baskets half filled with earth on which burned the continuous fire which would start the next fire, and the coals from that fire to start the next and so on all the way to the end of time. The concept and notion of fire carrier par excellence was deeply entrenched in her psyche and made her feel special, and she had held to this value all of her life.
She called for a halt; for at last even Meemai had to admit to fatigue. Using her ingenuity, she and Pio fashioned a crude shelter from sticks and grass which they did their best to camouflage with the green boughs of a bush growing in the plain. Their shelter had been built in such a way that there was an almost round smoke hole in the roof; and inside, with some wood shavings. dried grass and leaves, Meemai bent over the kindling and struck her flint on her grooved stone striker; the sparks jumped from the stone onto the dry kindling. Meemai sucked in her breath slowly and held the air in her lungs; the sparks caught and the kindling began to smoulder; she loosed the air in her lungs and blew gently on the nascent fire; little by little the kindling burned hotter and faster; deftly, she added bigger and bigger pieces until she was satisfied the fire would live. Now Pio helped her put pieces of wood in the fire; he sat as close as he could to its warmth; he had been damp for many days and needed to dry out and, if possible, have something hot to drink.
The fire burned low, but hot, and soon Meemai had made some hot tea from some flowers she had picked in the forest. Pio let the heat from the small, tightly woven reed cup fill his hands; he let out a sigh of content them put the cup to his lips, breathed out satisfaction and took another drink, a long one, draining, his cup; but Meemai was alert and even before he could ask for more, she was there ready to fill his cup.
They cooked and ate what food they had collected, including about a dozen fat grubs they roasted on the coals; along with the grubs they ate roots which to Pio tasted like a crunchy apple but not as sweet. The meal was sufficient to stop the hunger pangs for a little while, but in a few hours Pio knew he would be hungry again. He prayed for a continued supply of food on their journey. Afterwards, he lay down and made himself as comfortable as possible, and with a simple utterance of thanks, he fell asleep.
Meemai sat on her haunches and stared into the glowing coals; her grandmother, she reminisced, had been able to predict coming events by gazing into the coals; but Meemai did not have that talent; she wished, however, that she did have the power of pyromancy, for she would be able to see the end of this escape; she still did not feel safe; her intuitions told her to be alert and to not think they were safe yet.
All the tea had been drunk. She wiped out the cups and stood them near her pack. She lay down, her back to the fire and her eyes toward the opening. But sleep, too, caught up with her and as she fell into the land of dreams, her grip on Kwa-a's knife relaxed.
Kwa-a slept in the fork of a tree across which he had tied vines in a criss-cross pattern; and, up there, high above the ground, he could see a great distance and he saw how the land sloped up towards a plateau. He judged the distance to be still a day's journey (or so) away; but he knew he was on the right track, After he had found the canoe, he had spotted their trail immediately. He found the burned out tree in which the two runaways had slept; Kwa-a even slept there one night himself so as to be more in tune with their spirits and thus easier to follow--or so he reckoned in his primitive psyche.
The webbed bed was not uncomfortable by Kwa-a's standards, and when he awoke at first light, he felt refreshed and eager to start his march; tracking them now for five days made good sport; he grinned as he climbed down the tree, chuckled at his thoughts of what he would do with the old man when he finally caught up with them. As he walked along he kept an eye open for game. He noted he'd not seen much. His stomach grumbled and he satisfied it as he could with fruit, roots and whatever small creature he was able to shot with his arrows.
Arturo's hip healed; it ached now and them but he grew used to that, too, For a while he walked with a limp but the limp was now gone. He had learned to make the best of his life.
The days had gone by relatively uneventfully. With his 7mm carbine, he was able to bring down small game; the night before, he had had his first taste of tuocan; he found it a little bitter to his taste, but perhaps because he'd not prepared it properly. The meat was blue; he'd not expected that, but food was food and the oddity of the blue meat of the tuocan, notwithstanding, he ate the bird. Aside from exotic meats, he was now able to distinguish certain fruits, the latest of which was one he'd learned to eat from the monkeys. He'd happend on a gang of monkeys eating some; the monkeys, surprised by his sudden appearance, scurried off into the forest away from the monster who had frightened them.
In their fright, they dropped some half eaten fruit. He followed the old rule of survival: If animals eat certain fruits one can be fairly certain they will not be harmful to a human. The fruit looked like a mango, but the color was a mixture of subtle terra cotta and bright yellow. He cut one open; inside were rows of seeds about the size of small peas. With a flip of his finger he pushed the seeds into his mouth and sucked on the sweet membrane to which they clung, sucked out the nourishment, then spat out the wad and bit into the fruit which could be eaten skin and all--as he had seen the monkeys do. The skin was slightly tart and made a fine contrast to the sweetness of the fruit per se. From the tree he ate his fill, loaded up his pack and pockets, made sure of his bearings, and off he went, north, with the hope of bumping into some outpost of civilization.
Life in the forest was cruel, harsh, demanding, and lonely--often frightening. Arturo had to work hard to eat, to stay alive; a good deal of his time was spent in gathering and in hunting. He was a true nomad: The forest was his home with no fixed abode; each night he slept in a different place; his only constancy was his direction: North. Often loneliness gripped him in fits of melancholy and depression; and just as often he lamented there had been no other survivors. All of them dead--except Ugo--and then only for a little while--all of them dead--he alone destiny spared. Why? He pondered this at night lying on his back looking up at the few stars he could see through the high, dense foliage of the trees. This asking for answers to questions of great mystery bemuddled him. He was convinced he had no call to analyze the greater philosophical considerations of destiny, for he was too busy trying to stay alive in a beautifully cruel environment.
The land started to incline; after a day's march the incline grew steeper and the trees thinned out.
Arturo reached the plain by nightfall. He walked a few weary steps onto the flatland and let his body gently fall into the high grasses. He made sure the safety of the carbine was on, snuggled next to it and gave up his weariness to sleep.
On their continued march, Pio caught his ankle in a rodent's hole; the ankle bone was not broken, but the ankle swelled, nonetheless; he pushed on, however, obstinately. Meemai helped him hop; but at last he had to admit the pain was too great to bear (try as he could to endure it) and they had to stop; and because of Pio's injury, they stayed encamped for two days.
Meemai did what she could for his comfort. She was unfamiliar with the medicinal qualities of the local plants and didn't know which would make a good poultice which Pio needed to make the swelling in his ankle go down. She felt a little helpless away from the forest; she was at a loss as a healer without the bounty of the forest. She gave Pio water to drink, fanned him with a fan of dried grasses she had deftly and quickly woven when she saw how hot he was.
Stopped as they were, did not sit well with her. Meemai was all for moving on, but she had to consider her companion's condition. Should she make another fire?
She debated with herself for a while. but in the end she decided in favor of a fire, a small one at least for a modicum of warmth, some hot water for tea and to bathe his ankle, and to give a feeling of security--howbeit small and transitory.
With a stick she dug a hole then gathered kindling, found some thick, dried branches and broke them into short pieces. She made a shower of sparks and in a few minutes the fire was burning with a minimum of smoke, and with an earthen wall, she made a circle around the fire to shield the firelight as much as possible.
Far off in the distance, Arturo walked very slowly toward the smell of smoke. There had been no lightning so it could not be a fire caused by nature; perhaps, however, it was some kind of spontaneous combustion--but not very likely--so he could only draw one conclusion: The fire was made by human hands. The only question which remained to be answered was whether or not the firemaker (or makers) was friendly or not.
He unslung the carbine, slowly opened the bolt and pulled it back just far enough to make sure it was loaded; very carefully, he rechambered the cartridge, then, carrying the carbine at the port, went in search of the fire.
Meemai tried to fight her fatigue; Struggle though she did, her body demanded rest; but she did not give up so easily; she, therefore, pulled herself up from her curled up position and sat on her haunches and rocked back and forth with the idea that the motion would keep her awake; but to the contrary, the rhythm she established acted more as a soporific, and gradually her motion slowed, then stopped altogether as she fell into a half conscious sleep where she could hear the sounds of the night but could not differentiate them from her dreams.
Arturo, guided by a sixth sense, headed in the direction of the encampment. At one point he heard the unmistakable sounds of someone snoring hard by. He grew tense, held his breath and listened intently. The snoring was sporadic and he listened for a long time if he could hear other, different snores, but one was all he heard. He lay on his belly and, with extreme caution, crawled toward the snoring. Through the tall grass he saw the low glow of the fire, With a gentle touch of the grass he pulled the stalks aside: There he saw Meemai asleep on her haunches and, nearby, an old man sleeping, the source of the snoring.
He crept closer. In Meemai's half sleep she heard a rustling but for her it was a dream sound. Ever closer Arturo crept; now he was at an angle and could see Meemai's profile; he saw immediately she was an Indian; but the beard and the facial features of the old man were European. Closer and closer he crept until he could hear the even breathing of the woman squatting on her haunches; he saw no signs of others; he looked for guns but saw none. At last he felt safe enough to come out of the grass and introduce himself.
He got up; and with the carbine at the ready, he stepped into the small clearing. When he stepped forward Meemai awoke. In a flash she was on her feet and her hand on Kwa-a's long knife. She uttered not a word, but stood facing the tall stranger,. She was frightened, but did not reveal her fright; at least, she thought, it's not Kwa-a. Arturo now had a good look at the woman, saw the long, deadly looking knife she held in her hand.
Arturo had his finger on the trigger and was ready to shoot if necessary. They stared at each other for a long time, neither of them moving.
Meemai scrutinized the stranger; he was like Pio in appearance, She called out to the sleeping priest who snorted, opened his eyes and asked, "What is it, Meemai?"
"We have a visitor. I believe he is one of your people."
With that Pio sat bolt upright, rubbed his eyes and stared in amazement. Automatically he spoke in his native Italian, "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
Pio was flabbergasted when the reply to his questions were answered in Italian: "I would like to ask the same of you," rejoined Arturo, equally flabbergasted.
"Meemai," called out Pio in her language, "Help me up." She felt no danger and so lowered her weapon, stepped over to him; he took her arm and pulled himself up and balanced himself on his good leg.
Pio stared at the carbine and he commented on it: "That carbine, is it necessary to hold it in such a dangerous manner? We are not armed--except a knife," and he lifted out his arms with both palms opened as a sign of peace; and as he moved his arms he told Meemai to put her dagger down. she looked at him with a quick look of incredulity, but just as quickly acquiesced and placed the long-bladed knife on the ground. When Arturo saw this gesture of peace, he took his finger off the trigger, pushed the safety on and slung arms.
"Please sit," gestured Padre Pio to Arturo.
The three of them sat around the fire looking at each other not yet ready to enter into lengthy conversation.
Meemai threw some dried grass on the coals, blew gently; a muted puff sound announced flames to which she added twigs, then thicker pieces of wood. Now there was ample light to see clearly the smudges, flecks of dirt, scratches, natural wrinkles and eyes of the three faces outlined by the flames. Arturo took note of Meemai's eyes, for they were the darkest hazel eyes he had ever seen; but what took him so deeply was the clarity, their almost shining aspect: Fresh eyes uncontaminated by anything outside of nature; eyes which might as well have been looking at the world a thousand or ten thousand years before--it didn't matter.
Meemai studied this stranger in her own way: Out of the corners of her lowered eyes. She was accustomed to that. He was very different than Pio; he looked strong and his long, unkept beard and hair made him seem fierce. He made her a little afraid
Pio began by speaking slowly, recounting to Arturo the circumstances which had brought them to the place where they now sat.
Arturo listened in great surprise. It seemed too fantastic, but then not anymore fantastic than his own story. Would they believe him? Pio, who had finished relating their story now waited for Arturo to reciprocate.
"Would you believe I fell from the sky?" he said in half jest. Pio translated for the curious ears of Meemai; and when she heard what the stranger had said, her eyes opened wide; she lifted her head and looked at him almost in awe; but she had not sensed the humor in his voice and the interpretation had not carried the light tone of Arturo's reply.
Arturo saw her face; for a moment he didn't understand--but suddenly it struck him that she, perhaps, believed he'd literally fallen from the sky because he was some spirit or such. He burst into laughter! He laughed heartedly, laughed as he had never laughed before. He slapped his knee and tears came out of his eyes. Pio soon understood the outburst and he laughed a hearty laugh himself. They laughed in release. For a few moments their laughter filled the night and the laughter brought them together and sealed their common destiny.
Even Meemai was affected by the laughter. Although she knew it was how she had looked (and could not understand why they were laughing) she smiled and put her hand in front of her mouth (as did women in her culture) and laughed a little herself.
Once quieted, Arturo told his story. Incredible as it was, Pio listened; his whole body tensed as Arturo related of his falling from the broken plane and how he had survived. When he was finished, Pio retold the story to Meemai, but he had also to explain what an airplane was, for she was a primitive woman whose people were lost to time and knew nothing of the technological world. She was of an understanding that only birds and and insects and gods flew, and the very idea that a contrivance made by men which could then be flown by men--well--it was almost impossible to believe; but she loved Pio and had come to know that he always told the truth, so she accepted this story about the stranger and shuddered to think about his ordeal.
The two men talked long into the night; Meemai, feeling secure, lay on the ground with her head propped up on her carrying sack; she closed her eyes and for the first time in many days, she did not have the long knife in her hand. For a while she listened to the strangely musical language the two men were speaking and let its dulcet tones lull her into a well-deserved sleep.
Eventually Pio pleaded fatigue and excused himself and pushed himself away from the fire and, making himself comfortable, fell into a quiet repose. Arturo, happy to be in the company of human beings once again, was too excited to sleep.
As Pio and Meemai slept, Arturo gazed into their faces; he saw gentleness in Pio's face and patience, but in Meemai's, although he could see she was a comely woman, he could read nothing. Everything about her was different: The way she thought, her concept of the world, her consciousness was locked into a time remote from the Twentieth Century. He continued to stare into her face trying to find something--just what, he was not sure.
He threw some sticks on the fire and watched them burn to coals. Strange, he was not sleepy at all; yet he had walked a long way; nevertheless, he lay down, put his head on his pack and with his eyes wide open, stared at the stars; the constellations seemed as remote as the capital he (and now his two companions) sought. He longed for that elusive city, longed for the amenities of civilization; he was weary of the march, weary of having to hunt every day for food and water; weary of living in fear of wild animals and poisonous snakes; weary of the anxiety of perhaps losing his way and walking into oblivion only to die in some unknown spot in the middle of nowhere.
Watching the stars relaxed him; his eyes began to flutter; he tried to keep them open but sleep took him, too.
Meemai awoke just as the sun graced the world with its initial soft light. She lifted herself up, stretched and yawned; she scratched her head, then ran her fingers through her hair. The feel of her rough hair made her wince. She had always been neat in her personal habits, especially the cleaning and grooming of her hair which she washed using the soap berries which grew in abundance on trees all around her village, or the broad leafed plants which grew by the river; and afterwards, with a wooden comb and oil, she oiled and combed her hair. She sighed a little in her reminisce, for she was a little vain about her hair. But here on the flatland, there was not enough water to wash her hair as she was wont to do, She looked forward to finding running water; she ran both hands through her hair using her fingers for a comb. She felt some small sticks and found a couple of burrs, She shook her head, letting her long tresses fly in the air like a tuft of grass in a strong wind. She breathed deeply of the fresh morning air.
She took some sticks, knelt by the fire and blew gently on the coals which immediately glowed. The dry sticks ignited; the heat felt good. The flames outlined the sleeping from of the stranger; she took a long, curious look at him: His nose was too long, she thought, his chin could not be seen because of his beard which was dirty, un-combed--just like her hair. But she recalled the gentleness of his voice and she had seen goodness in his eyes. She put more sticks on the fire; she wanted a hot fire, for today there was a guest and she must prepare food for him.
From her sack she took the last of the fruits she had carried; they were soft; another day or so and they would be spoiled; she had succulent roots she had dug; their juices gave one strength and tasted good. The roots were fat and their hard, outer skin could withstand fire. While waiting for the fire to burn down, she again burrowed into her bag and searched for her comb, a piece of turtle carapace carved with depictions of animals with long hair. Kwa-a had carved the comb. As a hunter he did not have to carve; that was usually done by the older men or the maimed. Kwa-a had caught the turtle and killed it; she had cleaned it; she cooked the turtle and they ate it. He took the shell and painstakingly cut out a piece from the big dome of former turtle home and carved the long haired beasts. She had been surprised when he gave it to her; it was something most unexpected; at first she didn;t know what to make of his gift. For her it was a fluke, something out of the ordinary and not part of Kwa-a's normal comport-ment.
With this comb, then, she gently tugged at her hair cleaning and restoring it, as she could, to the long flowing style she usually wore it. Somewhere in the forest she 'd lost her headband; on the run, as they were, she just pushed her hair away or tied it with a flimsy strand of twisted grass. She yearned to be clean and neat; she wanted to be more presentable for the stranger, wanted to please, not really sure why.
Arturo stirred, opened his eyes, and lay in his waking position for a few minutes thinking about his meeting with his new companions.
He rolled over on his side; he could see Meemai combing her hair; she had her back to him. For the first time he noticed she wore no shirt and no breast covering. He had seen bare breasted native women; but he had not been near a woman in so long that now, as he lay there watching Meemai comb her hair, he found her act sensual and the sight of her bare back sent tiny shiverings of desire through his just awakened body. He watched her for a long time and he would have watched her even longer, but nature called and he rose to walk out into the bush and relieve himself. Meemai turned when she heard him rise. She lowered her eyes then quickly looked at him in the face and smiled a sincere smile and spoke a few soft words of morning greeting to him in her language. Arturo greeted her and smiled. "Did you sleep well?" he asked in English. Upon hearing him speak, Meemai shyly turned her head away. Why suddenly was she so shy? And with his carbine over his shoulder, off he went into the bush.
On his way back he saw an animal, one he'd never seen before, but which reminded him of a small antelope. The beast was standing at a low tree eating leaves. Arturo was down wind. He slowly brought the carbine to his shoulder; carefully he aimed; he aimed for the throat which was in full sight; he took a breath. held it and slowly squeezed the trigger. The bullet traveled hundreds of feet per second, entering the throat of the animal faster than the animal could respond instinctively to the loud report of the Mauser. The force of the penetrating bullet knocked the animal to the ground; for a moment it stared in a daze at the sky, then died.
All the animals within earshot were frightened and they scurried to their burrows or ran in panic through the fields or flew into the air. Never since the beginning of time had such a noise (except thunder) filled the air of this primeval place.
Meemai dropped her comb in fright and looked up to the sky in search of the storm. From the bush came the sound of the flap of many wings; and as she looked towards the sky, she saw birds in flight and she (then) knew the sound had not been thunder. The report of the gun woke Pio who was just stirring himself. He was no stranger to the sound of gunfire and he deduced it must be Arturo, for he had looked around and did not see him, neither did he see the Mauser. Was he shooting at someone or had he bagged some game? He saw how frightened and confused Meemai was and he tried to calm her saying he knew the source of the sound and for her not to be scared.
Arturo cut the throat of the antelope-like animal and held it up by its hind quarters and bled the animal. It was not heavy.
With Meemai's help Pio got up and together they walked (cautiously) toward the direction from which the sound had come. They did not have to walk far, for they saw Arturo walking, holding an animal by its hind legs. "Bravo!" shouted Pio. Arturo replied, "Breakfast will be served shortly, don't you think so?" Pio translated, Meemai smiled and her mouth watered. She quickened her pace so she could take the quarry from the hunter, clean it and cook.
White hot coals cooked the meat. Meemai cooked the liver first and gave most of it to Pio; she sliced the heart into as many thinly sliced pieces as she could and cooked them and served them on sticks; she skewered the belly meat and cooked that first for it would cook quickest.
Her own breakfast had not been forgotten; and along with the fresh meat they also ate the succulent roots which tasted so much like mushrooms. They ate the belly meat with gusto. Meemai took the tongue, wrapped it in a piece of the hide and dug a trench in the fire, covered the wrapped tongue first with earth, ashes then topped it with live coals; it would cook slowly in its own juices until it was tender. She regretted she had no salt.
It was while they were eating that Arturo remembered the five cans of condensed milk remaining in his pack and he told Pio whose face lit up. "Ah, if only we had some coffee and sugar. Wouldn't that be a pleasure," rejoined Pio, with a motion of his hands to his lips holding an invisible coffee cup and saucer.
"We'll have our coffee one of these days. Do you know the Cafe Scrirabin near the Grand Plaza?" asked Arturo.
"No, I'm afraid I don't. I've lived at jungle missions for over thirty years and I can count the times I've been to the capital in all those years on one hand."
"But what did you do for thirty years in the jungle?" asked Arturo.
Pio laughed. What had he not done for thirty years? His goal had been to compile a bilingual dictionary and grammar of as many Indian languages as were to be found, then translate the Scriptures into those languages. That is what he did when he wasn't tending the sick, burying the dead, baptizing the new born, washing and dressing wounds, teaching the rudiments of reading and writing, introducing new converts not only to their newly adopted religion, but, also, introducing the civilization which came with it.
And Pio was very strict about helping the mission's converts, re-assuring frightened primitives about airplanes, electricity, firearms, medicine and surgery, automobiles, radio and television and the ten thousand gadgets, ideas and ways of a civilization as alien to the converts as would today's world be to an ancient Sumerian. In between all of these responsibilities, he'd compiled three dictionaries and three grammars plus he was able to speak all three tongues fluently and knew half a dozen dialects. He was the field linguist of his order and a prodigious one at that; to him came young, enthusiastic priests eager to learn the native tongues so that they could go forward into the interior to set up stations and cull converts among the Indians upon whom civilization was encroaching.
"To answer your question, my friend, would take thirty years," he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. "I am a priest-linguist, which entails more than languages." And Pio told him of the life he'd led during his three decades at the remotest missions, indeed the furthest outposts of civilization for more than a thousand miles and more. That is how he had made contact with the Tamurones, kin to the Kweiwi, Meemai's people. The Tamurones accepted Pio and he was able to learn their language; and through his learning he heard about the Kweiwi, who were still further away and had had no contact with the outside world and were considered , even by their kinsmen, to be a hard-nosed, rigid people, thus their relative isolation from people of their own stock. The very reason for his mission was to make contact with remote tribes, and fired with enthusiasm, he persuaded another priest and five converts to go with him; so with two canoes they had ventured forth into the distant and unknown land of the Kweiwi. But a sickness caused by water or food, he never knew, killed off all the party and only Pio survived. His beached canoe was found by Meemai's people.
Someone else, also, heard the shot which brought down the antelope: Kwa-a, but he was far away and just waking. By the time the sound reached his ears it was so muffled by the distance, he could not determine the direction from which it had come, nor the cause of the sound. Was it thunder or an animal's roar? He scratched the top of his head in bafflement. But Kwa-a was hungry and unexplained sounds--well, they would be dealt with. He'd been able to bring down small animals; he lived on roots and whatever else he could find; but he was always hungry, and this hunger made him (at times) a bit unsteady, but it was his indomitable will and his thirst for revenge which kept him going, tracking his wife and her wicked corrupter.
He had to spend a lot of time foraging, but he foraged as he tracked. He came upon an upright stump of a rotting tree; he examined the stump; his practiced eye saw all the signs; he took his knife and started to tear away at the rotten wood; and as he had suspected: Fat, thick, white grubs wriggling and twisting their unsunned bodies. Kwa-a smacked his lips. He tossed a couple into his mouth raw and writhing. As he chewed on the soft bodies, he assembled the makings for a fire. With a few strokes of his flint, he had glowing wood dust which he nurtured into a small ball of flame by blowing on it. He skewered a few of the grubs and held them over the flames. He ate them with relish; he took a handful of grubs and dropped them on the pile of hot ashes he'd gathered on the fire's periphery. In this manner the grubs cooked slowly; this was his favorite way of cooking grubs; when they were done, he ate these ash-coated, crispy grubs with pleasure. The outside was crisp and the inside soft and steaming. He had a feast. He dug into the rotten wood and searched for more grubs to take with him; but he found only a handful. He would cook them and take them with him when he resumed his tracking.
Kwa-a sat on his haunches and stared into the distance at the mountains. He had heard of mountains before, described as very, very high hills, but he had not imagined them to be what lay before him. Living in the forest gave him limited perspective in open spaces; but his mind was sharp enough to conceive if something so big seemed so small at this great distance, then the mountains must truly reach up to O-Wame`, the ruler of thunder, rain, wind and clouds; a very powerful god, one to be feared. Kwa-a's beliefs were deep; for him there was absolutely no question in his mind about O-Wame`s power and the retribution it could unleash. He stood in awe of lightning and thunder; he marveled at the wind and the rain; he could not imagine any other source, any other explanation for these phenomena except by the power of the god. In this way Kwa-a was a most primitive and superstitious man. He had a high survival quotient in the wilds, he could take care of himself; he knew how to make weapons; he knew something about healing with herbs and barks; he could build a sturdy hut, fish, hunt and knew crafts and could paint his body with colors he made himself; all of this and more he could do; but his consciousness was remote and utterly naive about the world away from his isolated forest home.
He cooked the last of the grubs, wrapped them in some leaves, covered his fire with lots of dirt, then started off on his hate-filled quest. In the forest his eyes were sharp, quick to notice things; but up here in this tall, grassy flatland, his tracking skills were diminished.
Kwa-a traveled (more or less) in a northerly direction. He used his instincts and a certain far off mountain peak to guide on.
The two days of rest helped Pio's injury immensely and the company of a strong young man, armed, bolstered his courage and made Pio rest easier.
After the feast of meat and hot canned milk, Pio closed his eyes and dozed off into a deep, healing repose.
Arturo and Meemai looked at each other from out of the corner of their eyes. Each was trying to understand the other without the aid of language. But he began to fidget, so he decided to clean the carbine.
From the butt of the gun he took a cleaning rod and screwed the pieces together; and with pieces of a ripped shirt he swabbed out the barrel using slow, even strokes.
Meemai marveled at the potency of this weapon. It frightened and awed her. Pio had been very patient (as he always was) and explained to her very clearly how the fire weapon worked. His explanation notwithstanding, she still believed there was some kind of magic or spirit living inside the carbine. Arturo removed the bolt from the receiver; with the shiny odd shaped (to her) bolt out, the weapon did not seem as formidable.
Next to Arturo was the spent cartridge from this morning's kill and several rounds of live ammunition. She was very curious and she moved closer. He looked up from his work and smiled. She returned his smile. Her eyes looked to the cartridges. "Uli, uli," she said in her tongue, bright, bright, and pointed at the cartridges. Arturo let go of his cleaning rod, picked up a cartridge and handed it to her. She jumped back in fright, but caught herself and moved forward, but her hands were still protecting her face. Arturo smiled a broad, re-assuring smile and gestured for her to come closer and to sit down; this she did cautiously. Though she did not fear the disassembled weapon, she did fear the "darts of death" as Pio had described them. However, Arturo's coaxing allayed her undue, but very real fears. She sat across from him; he had sense enough to put down the live round and pick up the spent cartridge and handed that to her. She looked at the bright brass cartridge--oh, she wanted to hold it; but her natural timidity obtained. Arturo took her hand gently and opened it; she did not resist. His touch made her feel soft.
He placed the spent shell into her opened hand and went back to cleaning the carbine.
Meemai held the empty shell as if holding something magical and mysterious. She brought her hand close to her nose and sniffed at the brass; it smelled strangely. She sniffed at the opening and wrinkled up her nose. In spite of the bad smell from inside, she liked the brightness and the smoothness of the brass. She would like to have such an object. But how would she ask for it? Meemai handed the shell back to him.
Arturo saw how curious she was, and since he had no use for the spent cartridge, he handed it back to her; and with gestures and soft words, he made her to understand the brass casing was hers to keep. When she became aware of his intention she couldn't help smiling the broadest smile she'd smiled since her escape--in fact, she could not remember when she'd last felt so happy about something. This stranger was a source of goodness: Meat and protection with his fire weapon and now a giver of gifts. She lowered her eyes and in a soft, grateful voice, thanked him.
Arturo finished cleaning the gun, replaced the bolt, loaded the magazine and chambered a round.
"What now?" he thought. He was thankful he was alive and relatively healthy, but still he was lost in a terra incognita. If they walked long enough, they would find an outpost. But the mountains, those snow capped, rugged peaks, even at this great distance, seemed a formidable barrier and he had no desire to be a mountain climber. They were completely unprepared for such a trek. Perhaps they could find a pass if not, they would have to go around the mountains. How many weeks or months would such a journey take? He let out a sigh of almost despair which did not go unnoticed by Meemai, who heard the sigh, in spite of her preoccupation with the shiny brass casing.
She looked up and saw him hang his head. She wanted to go to him, aid him in some way. But how? When Kwa-a used to become sad she always knew what to do: Give him favorite foods, sing some songs and gradually coax him to their sleeping mat, letting him have his way with her. But she could not do this with him! She shocked herself that such a thought should occur to her. "I must control myself," she whispered to herself. Turning from his sight, she joined her thumb and two fingers (as Pio had taught her) and made the sign of the cross, uttered the holy words Pio had told her held so much power, the ones he'd told her should preface every request to the Holy Mother. The image of a holy mother was not hard for her to grasp. Among her people there were many images of her in almost every hut: Ma Tou, as she was called, and she was especially venerated in her clan. When Pio introduced Meemai to his own great mother, Meemai immediately felt a great tie to her. Pio had given her a round metal image of her which she wore around her neck with a cord Meemair had woven out of the threads from a certain tree bark. She invoked Holy Mother Mary, as Pio had taught her, and asked her to help her understand her true heart.
Meemai felt lonely. She understood perfectly clearly what she was doing by running away; nonetheless, she longed for the sense of belonging to a very familiar place; and she missed the company of her women friends and kin. But she was an outcast--by her own choice. She accepted the consequences of her act, yet she was a sensitive woman and missed her village, for her the center of the world--which she knew she would never see again. Meemai knew that this stranger was also lonely and longing for his home; even Pio, though he spoke her language and was familiar with the ways of the forest people, he too was far away from his home and she felt sorry for both of these men.
She looked around at the tall grasses stretching , so it seemed, forever; everything was alien to her, for she was a woman of the forest and these flatlands did not sit well with her. she felt so far, far away, and for a moment, the briefest of moments, she regretted what she had done--but also realized the events which had brought her to where she now was could not have gone any other way. Meemai shook her head as if wanting to throw something off. she got up and busied her hands; she must not think so much.
Arturo had fallen into melancholy. He was no stranger to this mood; ever since this misadventure began he'd gone up and down an emotional ladder which made him, first, accept his lot, then falling into a melancholy which would last for long, miserable days. Now melancholy returned like an old, unwanted friend. The weight of the journey and being lost were heavy upon his shoulders; he wanted this bad dream to be over. There was yet a lot of living he wanted to do and tramping through this unknown land was keeping him from living the kind of life he imagined he was being denied. Anger! He wanted to be angry, for perhaps anger would drive his melancholic spirit away. But anger at whom and why? He was where he was because the desires in his life had brought him to a certain geographic coordi-nate, and there he was dumped from the sky like an indifferent toy. Now he found himself with an old polyglot priest and his stone age convert; three lost souls looking for a way to civilization.
He had been overwhelmed by the immensity of the forest, and now by these seemingly endless grasslands and the looming mountains with their icy pinnacles. he wearied of this wild, uninhabited land. But there was no clear direction (except north) and there seemed to be no end in sight from this savage life.
Arturo lifted his head and looked at Meemai and shook his head at her innocence. The big, big city would gobble her up. In the wilds she was at home and safe; but left alone in a large city she would succumb to the fast pace of the busy, active urbanites. As he surveyed her, he began to notice her an as object of desire. Even his appetite for passion had been put aside in the name of survival. His eyes traveled from one breast to the other then passed down to her hips and drank her in lasciviously, all the way to her toes then back up again where his eyes stopped at her pubis and lingered there for a moment before returning his gaze to her face.
She'd seen that he was looking at her and she knew why, for Arturo's look, she discerned, was no different than other men, or that of Kwa-a when he wanted to lie with her. She didn't know what to make of this, but she knew this must not be. Nevertheless, her passions were also aroused, but she was not so willing to show her feelings. Moreover, she was not certain of these feelings of hers. How could she be attracted to this man who was not her husband? It went against her moral grain to have such thoughts. Women in her village were taught to remain loyal to their husbands--and never did it cross her mind to do otherwise. Now, suddenly, however, her moral code was being challenged, and she was not so sure she would abide by her deeply inculcated code.
Meemai was warm and needed to make a breeze. She picked up a makeshift fan she'd used to fan the fire but now used it to cool herself. The motion of the fan excited Arturo in some subtle way. He lay back on his pack and watched her move the fan to and fro in front of her comely face; he followed the fan with his eyes and she followed his eyes with her eyes. She lowered her eyes, "What would it be like to stay with such a man?" thought Meemai--and she shuddered just a little that again this kind of thought was crossing her mind!
Like it or not, the motion of the fan caused Arturo to close his eyes and fall into a light sleep.
While he slept and Meemai cooked the remainder of the antelope, Kwa-a got closer to their camp. When the wind shifted, he caught the unmistakable aroma of cooking meat! His first hungry impulse was to go immediately to the source of the smell, but his tracker's response was to approach the source with stealth and cunning.
His nostrils flared as he sniffed the air; his pristine olfactories caught the smell of meat again. He turned and followed the scent.
Pio woke up feeling much better; he smiled when he saw Meemai basting the meat and saw how peacefully Arturo slept. He sensed even his ankle felt better and he was sure he could walk on it. He greeted Meemai; she smiled a re-assuring smile and asked if he wanted anything to eat or to drink. He shook his head no, but he did ask her to fetch him his walking stick.
With concern in her voice, she urged him not to walk on the injured ankle. "But look," he said, pulling up a few inches of his ragged cassock to show how the swelling had gone down. Like a prudent mother, she gave her reserved consent--but not without some conditions: That she would help him up, and that he not walk for too very long. He agreed. "She is such a sweet, helpful soul," thought Pio.
The cane aided his first unsteady steps; There was no pain, however; initially he experienced some discomfort, but with every stop the discomfort lessened and his step became more confident. He laughed with joy for the surcease from pain and incapacitation. Pio was an active person, and when he had to be abed because of some illness or injury, he felt restrained. "I'm going to walk into the bushes and be alone for a few minutes," he told Meemai. Pio walked beyond sight of the camp and fell down on his knees, and making the sign of the cross, he prayed a deep prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of Arturo and for the healing of his ankle. His orison finished, he got up and walked around until he came to a place covered with a low bush on which grew four-petaled flowers; they were a deep, rich ruby red, and the petals were thick, not unlike an edelweiss. He stopped to examine this flower more closely. As he did, he heard a scream that made his blood run cold. He heard a second scream and then a gunshot!
For a few moments he stayed frozen in inaction, but he was soon up and, holding on tightly to the walking stick, he went as fast as he could back to camp. He broke through the grass and this is what he saw: Kwa-a with a war club in his hand; Meemai sprawled on the ground just in front of Kwa-a; Arturo was standing firm with the carbine in his hands. Kwa-a was bleeding from his thigh. As Pio got closer he could see a look of incredulity and shock on Kwa-a's face. Then Pio realized Kwa-a had no knowledge of firearms. Pio called out to Arturo, "Don't kill him! For the love of God, don't kill him!" And Pio called out in Kweiwi, "Put down that club, Kwa-a; you have been wounded by a very powerful weapon; my friend could kill you very easily only by moving his finger. Put down your club in the name of peace!"
Kwa-a stood in utter resignation and fear. He did not know what had happend to him. He felt pain as he'd never felt it before, and a burning sensation in his thigh. Looking down he saw blood coming out. But how? He'd heard a loud roar and saw a flash of light, then he felt something hit him, almost knocking him down. It had happend all so quickly. Kwa-a heard Pio's warning. With frightened eyes, he stared in awe at Arturo's carbine. Kwa-a could feel the blood running out of his body, his life slipping away; and he realized through his shock that he would die from loss of blood. Prudence, fear and lust for survival made him lay his war club down, and when his hand was free put that hand over the wound and pressed as hard as he could. Pio ran to Meemai and examined her; he felt her carotid artery and felt a pulse. He knelt close to her and put his ear to her mouth and nose; she was breathing. Upon examining her head wound, he could tell the blow had not crushed her skull, but only broken the skin. He had seen many such wounds before. Pio was angry at Kwa-a, but overjoyed Meemai still lived. As gently as he could, he lifted her to the mat where he'd slept. He washed her wound. And while he ministered to her, Kwa-a sat on the ground with his hands on the bullet wound, for he discovered that whatever demon had penetrated him, it had passed through the flesh and had come out the other side. The direct pressure he'd applied had all but staunched the bleeding.
Arturo kept Kwa-a under the gun; and after the wounded man sat down, Arturo picked up the war club, then took the long knife Kwa-a had strapped to his wrist.
Pio went, also, to Kwa-a's aid. With a long, wide piece of his cassock, which he'd cut of, then passed the strip over the fire (for it was the only means of sterilization) he bound the wound of the still unbelieving Kwa-a, who was more in shock at the sudden and mysterious way he'd been wounded, than the wound itself. All the time Pio was at his side the priest was trying to calm Kwa-a's agitated spirit by trying to explain firearms to a man who only understood arrows, spears and knives. Though Kwa-a heard the clear explanation, he was still dumbfounded at what had happend to him.
Arturo had a deep dislike for Kwa-a; he was sorry the bullet had hit so low; but Kwa-a's entrance and attack had been so unexpected that (for Arturo himself) to have responded as quickly as he had had all but amazed him. His reflection on the alacrity of his response to danger made him see that he was responding himself like a savage, acting on the slightest motion seen in ones peripheral vision or having sensed intuitively. He'd been half asleep on the ground. Now and then his eyes would open and flutter lazily. he remembered seeing Kwa-a but only as in a dream; but when he heard that all too real, clear and piercing scream of Meemai, he reached for the Mauser and only half awake, fired just as Kwa-a- was making ready to strike his second, and certainly, fatal blow to Meemai, already unconscious by Kwa-a's too quick and not too accurate first blow. But now they had to care for the murderous savage--was his thought. As far as Arturo was concerned, the laws of survival say the strongest survive--and Kwa-a had lost; and were it not for the insistence of Pio, Arturo would have taken Kwa-a out into the tall grass and summarily shot him.
"He tried to murder her and he would have murdered you, too--and me--if he had had a chance! Don't give me any of your Christian piety--save that for your Sunday sermons!" Arturo was livid. His voice, harsh, unforgiving.
Pio was shocked; he'd not anticipated such vehemence; but all he could say to his new companion was: "I forgive you your ignorance, my son," and he returned to aiding and comforting Kwa-a as he could. Arturo went to Meemai's side; she was conscious, but her eyes bespoke extreme pain and fear. She looked directly into Arturo's eyes for a long time; she stared deeply, probingly into his eyes; she scrutinized his nose, his lips, ears--the lines on his forehead; she surveyed every aspect of his countenance as if to fathom the depth of his character and, therefore, his loyalty and trust, albeit they were strangers and did not speak a common language and weren't even part of the same world. And then she smiled a smile of thank you and, beckoning with her hand, she guided his ear to her lips and in a very soft whisper she said, "Kwa-a, cha-kotte." And still with her guiding hand she took his free hand and brought it to the carbine and she said again, "Kwa-a cha-kotte," and, as if to emphasize her words, she took his hand and guided it again (this time) to the trigger and ever so gently she laid his finger thereon and lay her finger on his and pressed ever so lightly; then she claimed his ear again and spoke the words, "Kwa-a, cha-kotte," and he understood: "Cha-kotte," meant kill him. Arturo had no qualms. He took her hand and squeezed it and nodded to let her know he understood and was in agreement. She made to speak; but he put his finger on her lips to silence her.
Kwa-a could not see what was going on between his wife and the stranger--but whatever it was he did not like it and, his shock notwithstanding, he seethed and (he) was reminded of his original intentions. Quickly he regrasped his purpose and knew that what he had traveled so long for must be done and done now!
The time was ripe: The old fool of a priest was the nearest and easiest target of his vendetta, With a viciously swift blow with a hard, powerful fist, he caught the ingenuous Pio on the back of the neck, killing him instantly. Like a wild and enraged animal, he sprang toward Arturo who heard a thud and turned just in time to see Pio, who had been kneeling, sag to the ground; without hesitation, Arturo jumped to his feet and was bringing the carbine to bear at the very moment Kwa-a sprang into his attack.
With a swift blow, he knocked the carbine from Arturo's grip. Kwa-a knew he was ignorant of the great mystery of that weapon, but he understood its power and needed to get it out of his enemy's hand.
Arturo knew something of the martial arts, and in a trice, he was in a protective stance and was able to ward off two blows of Kwa-a's attack and counter attack himself. He would not stop until this mad man was dead. Knowing Kwa-a's most vulnerable spot, his wounded thigh, Arturo delive-red a swift, powerful kick directly on the wound, which sent the enraged man howling and groveling on the ground in extreme pain. The bandage, which had had only a spot of blood was now saturated and oozed crimson.
Arturo's mind was sharp, his eyes quick, and he saw that his carbine had been tossed too far to recover, but Kwa-a's war club lay at hand. Picking it up and wielding it like a sword of mighty retribution, he held it over his head, and with a strong blow, hit Kwa-a on the side of his head. A loud crack resounded: Kwa-a's skull was hard; again the swift club of retaliation was ready, and the coup de grace hit Kwa-a on the neck and he was dead.
Arturo's eyes were wild; he breathed quickly and deeply. The club was at the ready. He held it just over his right shoulder. Mucous ran from his nose and commingled with his moustache and dipped down into his beard. His mind, the one (which had been) schooled in the classics of civilization, the amenities, protocols, philosophies and poetry of his culture, was (now) functioning at the primeval level of the now dead Kwa-a. He snorted great draughts of air through his nose and his body was tight, coiled, ready to strike. From his mouth came words only Meemai understood: "Kwa-a, cha-kotte, cha-kotte, cha-kotte!"
Meemai had witnessed the brief struggle between the two men, and had seen Arturo, without hesitation, pick up the club and smash it into her husband's skull; she'd heard the sound of his cracking cranium. And now she stared at Arturo's lips as he rasply uttered the very words she had spoken. He had done her bidding, had risked his life. She saw him anew, as a brave warrior. In spite of her own wound, her own pain, she got up and went to him. she knew that if the anger in his body were not directed elsewhere, he would sicken. At the death of an enemy, the men from her village always danced to rid their bodies and spirits of killing anger. She had watched that dance many times and knew a few chants.
She took him by the wrist. He pushed her hand away; she took him by the wrist again; he tried to break her hold, but she, too, was strong and persistent and he resisted no more.
She led him to circumambulate the sprawled body of the dead enemy. In a low, man-like voice, she started to intone: "Gwoma, zuta, zuta, zuta. Gwoma tumatote chotte, chotte, chotte," meaning, Anger, fly, fly, fly (from my body). Anger, the enemy has been killed, killed, killed.
Meemai yanked on his arm to get his complete attention. he responded; she pointed to her mouth and mimicked for him to chant the words. Like an automaton, he followed her. The circumambulation and chanting increased in rhythm, in speed. In a few minutes they were both shouting and almost running in a syncopated step. Arturo was feeling lighter and lighter; so, too, Meemai. He didn't know why he was dancing and chanting, nonetheless, he danced--lost as if in a trance, lost, for a while to his identity--the Arturo of swank ballrooms and crowded discos. Around and around they went the two of them ridding their spirits and hearts of the tragedy of the killing.
Meemai swayed; though this was not a woman's dance, she danced it as would a woman with a woman's grace.
There was never a frenzy in their dance of riddance, but at times Arturo would break the cadence and fling his arms about and scream. It was at such a break in the established rhythm that he at last came back to his senses. Suddenly, the episode flashed through to his more civilized, refound perspective and he stopped dead in his steps. So celery was his stop that Meemai, still caught up in the dance, bumped into him.
"What is this nonsense?" He killed Pio and I killed him. What the hell am I celebrating?" he said, in a harsh voice aimed at himself. He looked at Meemai just long enough to see that for a while he wanted to be alone. He grabbed the carbine. "Stay here," he said in a commanding voice, at the same time pointing to stay in place. He wheeled around and marched away into the tall grass.
He zigzagged until he felt he was far enough away to be alone. Co-incidently, he stopped nearby the very small flowers where Pio had last been before being summoned to his fate. Arturo sat down on the flowers indiscriminately; he wasn't aware of their existence. He didn't care about anything just then. He was trying to sort out the events in that methodical, step by step way he did everything from packing a suitcase or arranging a soiree with a charming woman--but in the killing of Kwa-a, there had been nothing methodical about it, only brute force--he had heard the sound of the cracking skull. He gritted his teeth remembering the sound.
Slowly, slowly, as if reviewing a long strip of film, frame by frame, Arturo resaw the battle over and over until he reached the dance--and it was the dance and the chant he could not understand. To tramp around the body like a triumphant savage himself chanting a paen in thanksgiving for the kill. This repulsed him more than the killing itself--to gloat over the dead; for him that was not a correct attitude and he didn't like himself for that; he thought it ugly and demeaning of those few values he still tried to hold true to in this unknown land which seemed to have no morality and turned reasonable men's heads and kept the aboriginals in a retarded state of consciousness. (But of course he was wrong about the dance; he could not be expected to know that that dance and chant had saved his spirit). He let out a deep sigh which brought him a little peace--but instantly he wished he could be in his mother's cozy kitchen overlooking San Francisco Bay, chatting with her and his beautiful, fullblooded Roamn cousin, Angelica. He wished he could be anywhere else except where he was. he sighed again and wished for a cigarette and a comfortble couch. He wished for so many things; ultimately, however, his reality was that he had to attend to the dead, then decide what to do next.
When he got back he found a strange scene: The two bodies lay side by side with eyes closed and arms crossed resting on their abdomens. A new fire burned nearby, and kneeling next to the fire was Meemai, naked, rocking back and forth flailing her arms and throwing dirt and ashes on her head and body. He could see scratches on her face, too.
Meemai, because she was who she was, was acting out the rites of mourning common to her people; ritualisticaly, she had scratched her face and chest, had torn off her clothing and strewed ashes and earth on her body. Arturo had seen similiar acts in India and North Africa, but somehow he'd not expected such rituals here. Though she saw him, she went on with her mourning.
Arturo sat nearby and studied the woman before him. He felt he should adopt a proper attitude of mourning himself. True, he felt sad over Pio's death, but he could not bring himself to be very reverent just now toward the dead--circumstances notwithstanding. The only thing he felt he needed to do was bury Pio in accordance with what Pio would have wanted, considering he had been a dedicated priest all the days of his vows.
He got up.
With Kwa-a's knife, he cut away the grass, and, using the knife as a digging tool, dug out a trench to accomodate Pio's body. It was hard work; he had to stop many times, but he persevered and got the grave dug.
Meemai was walking the fields gathering up as much brushwood as possible and was piling it in an area she had cleared.
Each prepared the dead in his own way.
Arturo went through Pio's effects: A wristwatch stopped by dampness, a stub of a pencil, a breviary, a thick, hand bound notebook with a title page written in large letters, Grammatica E Dizionario Della Lingua Tuamarones-Italiano-Italiano Tuamarones. This he would keep. He found an identity card, an old letter with an Italian postmark, a toothbrush, a penknife and nothing else. He put the effects into a cloth, wrapped them and put them in his pack.
Gently, he took Pio's body and laid it in the grave. He took Pio's rosary, which he had always recited, took it from Pio's waist and re-arranged it in his hands. From the breviary he read the Memento Etiam Domine. Arturo didn't understand all of the Latin,b ut he knew enough of it to know it was appropriate. Finished reading outloud, he made a perfunctory sign of the cross, then began filling in the grave.
Meemai knelt and watched; and when Arturo was reading aloud in Latin, she listened in awe. When he made the sign of the cross, she also made it; and when he began filling the grave, she helped by pushing with her hands and tamping the earth with open palms.
She had finished her initial rituals; it was only for her to wait for dusk to cremate Kwa-a.
She did not eat, she did not drink, she did not reclothe herself, but sat hunched next to the fire as if in contemplation of the fire.
Arturo felt hungry. He ate. He made himself as comfortable as he could and, making sure the carbine was loaded and in easy reach, he closed his eyes and fell into a well-deserved sleep.
The stench of Kwa-a's burning body awakened him; he gagged, held his breath while he moved down wind of the smell and the smoke. He coughed and spat as if to spit out the dead man who had got caught in his throat.
He watched as she sat on the back of her legs, her face wounded in ritual mourning, her face black from soot, gray from ashes; her hands and arms were scratched, her hair disheveled. She was simply ugly. Arturo could not reconcile or recognize the woman within his sight with the one he'd hungered for earlier this tragic day.
When he saw the fire burning down and further realized she had not gathered nearly enough wood, he went about gathering what he could, adding what he had to the funeral pyre. He found some large pieces and soon the fire was once again roaring, burning away the corpse.
He fell asleep, and when he awoke, Meemai was asleep, curled up in a fetal position. Arturo looked down on her: She seemed so frail, so fragile and fatigued to ugliness. He took off his shirt and covered her as he could.
Arturo kindled the camp fire and the fire made him remember the funeral pyre. He walked to the site and there, all wrapped in a cord made from twisted grass, were the neatly tied bones of what was left of Kwa-a, all, that is, except his skull; he did not see it anywhere. With a stick he poked around in the ashes but found nothing. His curiosity was satisfied; he assumed she'd disposed of the skull in her own manner, so he returned to his own fire, a fire for the living and, using an empty can, he heated half of the last can of milk, saving the other half for Meemai, when she would awake. He'd noticed that she had liked the canned milk. Some meat served as his breakfast which he ate slowly while he stared at the mound under which Pio's remains lay. Should he or should he not mark the grave? Did a mark make any difference in this place? Such were his thoughts as he munched his meal and took small sips of the hot milk.
Towards noon Memai awoke. She felt something on her back. She rolled over and the shirt slid off her. She saw what it was and looked for Arturo, but he was not to be seen.
The day was overcast and she was chilly. The shirt was still warm and she slid into it. She'd never worn such a garment but she had seen Arturo put it on and take it off, button and unbotton it and by having watched she had learned hot to put it on. It was large and covered her to the middle of her thighs. She rolled up the long sleeves then went about stoking up the cooking fire. She saw the milk and somehow knew it was meant for her. She did as she had seen Pio and Arturo do: Heat it and, as they, too, had done, drink it in short sips. Milk, as a food for adults was alien to her, but she liked the taste of this sweet, thick milk which came out of a metal container and not a human or animal mother. This intrigued her most! Her curiosity about Pio's world did not diminish but seemed to increase. But Pio was no more; her guide, her protector was dead. Would this new man take his place? for she was now truly alone, she had no one and no place to go to. She could not even return to her village for surely she would be killed and she could not stay in the wilds by herself, so she had to satay with Arturo and he would take her to where Pio said she would be welcomed, in that place where there were many fathers such as Pio. That far off promised land Pio had described was her refuge, her goal, her reason for living hereinafter.
For three days they sat mute in mourning, especially Meemai.
The fourth day Arturo had left early to scout out a new camp; he wanted to leave that place of death. In a more or less northeasterly route, he walked about two miles when he came across a game trail. he followed the path for a ways and soon heard the sound of water. He came upon a pool; The pool was not deep, maybe three feet or so; it was protected from the wind; all around grew greens and on the periphery he saw clusters of mushrooms. He walked around the pool and saw animal tracks, mostly small animal, but in the midst of the small prints were the unmistakable imprints of some large feline; nonetheless, they would spend a couple of nights here, for he wanted to be away from that camp of sadness and reminder of his own bestiality. He wanted to bathe and wash away the ugliness of that day--even try shaving if he could. On the way back he thought of Meemai and wondered if she was awake or asleep.
Meemai felt so much better when he'd returned. With hand motions, he made her to understand she was to gather up her things and by his pointing in the direction he'd just come, she understood they were breaking camp. She was glad, and complied.
Breakinbg camp was not difficult and with all on her back, and the bones lunder her arm, she stood ready. While she waited, she saw Arturo tie two sticks in cruciform and place the rough cross at the head of Pio's grave. She went to him, stood at his side and waited silently while he paid his last respects. Together they stood, joined in common memory of a good man.
At the new camp she made a fire and spread out the few things they would need, all the while eyeing the water, waiting for the moment she could bathe. She spied a plant she thought similar to what her people used as a soap plant. She tested it; the lather was weak, but she knew it would work as a shampoo.
Without further delay, Meemai took off Arturo's shirt and slipped into the pool. She sighed a sigh of joy--water at last, and taking a deep breath, she immersed her body fully, staying under water a long time; and when she surfaced, Arturo heard an "Aahi," of feminine satisfaction which made him turn his head toward that sound.
In spite of everything he felt a little shy about undressing, even though his diesire to bathe was just as great as hers; but the draw of the water overcame his shyness soon enough and off went his clothes.
She was shocked, men, as she knew them, did not bathe with women, and, she did not know how hairy he would be--but then Pio had had the hairiest body she had ever seen, so why shouldn't another of his white tribe, too? She could not help noticing his sex and saw that he, too, was circumsized as were the men in her village. "How strange and different this man is and how much is not different," she said to herself.
On a flat stone and using a thick stick, she beat out the juice from the soap plant. When she had pounded out enough juice, she rewet her long hair, then applied the primitive soap to her tresses. The more she worked the soap the thicker the lather became; it was then she knew that her original observation had been wrong, that far from being weak, this newly discovered variety of soap plant was good.
She pounded out more juice, and with it cupped in her hands, she offered it to Arturo. He lowered his head and gladly let her rub it into his hair and he worked it (even) into his beard. He gloried in the soap. He worked the later until it was so thick that his chestnut hair was lost in the white lather. Meemai laughed. She startled herself with this laugh. To her memory she had had no joy and little laughter, except with Pio, and now with Arturo; and her laughter tickled her spirit and she was happy.
He pounded out his own juice as he had seen her do; and with a ragged T-shirt for a wash cloth, he soaped his entire body not once, but twice. he rubbed all the filth from his body, then threw himself back into the pool where he frollicked and rinsed thoroughly. And with more soap, and using Kwa-a's sharp knife, he gave himself a rough shave. Meemai took all of his clothes and washed them.
Later they sat around the fire nibbling on meat and waited for the clothes to dry.
She lost her comb; but where? Twice she looked in her bag; but it was not to be found. With her fingers she tried to comb out her hair. Watching her trying to comb her hair with her fingers, Arturo took Pio's sharp penknife and, finding a flat piece of oddly shaped wood, started to carve a comb. He hadn't much talent as a carver, she could see that, but his perseverence and methodicalness produced a good enough comb which he presented to her without ceremony and which she gladly accepted and used it to untangle her long-neglected hair.
When she had finished combing her hair she felt grateful to this stranger for having made her a comb so she motioned for him to lower his head and pointed to the comb. She combed his hair.
Now washed and combed, they were happy just for those two simple things.
The night had no moon; stars lighted the patch of earth where these two disparate people touched, two people from different worlds, as different as two people can be, their psyches were different--perhaps even some of their cells were different. Nonetheless, they needed the same things to sustain their human existence: food, water, companionship, shelter from the elements, clothes and warmth. And these were the things which brought them together, drove them to be dependent on each other. They were like two innocents, though neither was innocent; they were innocent only of the knowledge of their future; and what befell them was to make them stronger in their persons.
The fire glowed brightly; their bellies were full, they drank fresh water. By the light of the stars and the fire, Arturo casually thumbed the bilingual dictionary and grammar compiled by the late Pio Giuliacci. Reading the Italian was no problem, for it was his second language. He had a curiosity about her language; afterall, he had to communicate with Meemai. Randomly, he stopped at the esses and his eyes fell on the word, stella, star; in her language Pio had written in his neat, tiny script, pelua. He lifted his head to the starry vault and said outloud, "Pelua, pelua."
Her eyes lit up, for she never imagined she'd ever hear her language again. "How does he know my tongue?" she thought. Nevertheless, she looked up. "Pelua!" she shrieked, as if seeing the stars for the first time. He flipped through the Ls and found luna, moon. There were several categories: full moon, new moon, half moon, etc. But the lone noun stood out soft and sonorous, "Solamba."
"Solamba," he said.
She laughed and retorted, "Pagu solamba."
He had to find pagu in the dictionary and found it meant no or not and he understood and replied, "Pagu solamba, pelua, pelua."
She laughed again an almost childish laugh at his sentence.
He showed her the book. By now she was familiar with books and what words looked like and understood each one had a meaning--yet this "magic," as she thought of it, was still beyond her comprehension. She pointed to random words and he spoke them. She was fascinated by this concept and wished she could convey to Arturo her wanting to learn. "Not now," she thought, "but when he learns more of my tongue, and I his."
He put the book away and arranged himself on his side with the fire to his back. Meemai sat upright with her legs crossed, her arms in back of her supporting her as she craned her neck and stared at the stars. How she wished she were in some fixed domicile in the new world of Pio's promise.
Arturo wanted her, but was not certain if this were correct. "Strange," he reflected, that in the middle of no-where he would be concerned about propriety--but he was like that.
She folded herself on the mat in a sleeping position. Her back was to him. She too felt something stirring, but it was not seemly of her to have such feelings. She shuddered at her aroused passion. What would she do if he touched her? She did not know. She grew tense with a slight anxiety.
They both lay in their respective positions for a long time. Arturo reached out and put his arm as gently as he could on her shoulder. Feeling his hand she flinched then tightened her shoulders, held them in uncomfortable tension, then released the tension with his hand still in place. She had to admit to herself, however, to the comfort she felt by his warm hand being on her shoulder. But she did nothing to encourage his advances. Arturo stroked her shoulder back and forth up to her neck and moved a few inches closer to her. She tensed at his nearness. He ran his hand over the top of her head, touched her face ever so delicately. Gently he drew her to him; she turned in his arms. He looked down into her open eyes. She was no longer afraid. She was a woman, she knew the play between the sexes. She had one problem, however: if she gave herself to him, then, according to the way she had been raised among her people, she would be his wife. But did he understand that? How could she explain that to him?
He lowered his lips to hers and kissed her. "Ah," she thought, "they also have this custom." She pulled him closer and held him tightly. She felt his firmness against her; she touched him as women in her village were wont to do which told the man he could have his way.
End Part One
A few days later and many miles from their first night of intimacy, Arturo and Meemai found themselves near the mountains. She stared in wonder at them. Mountains were alien to her; but there was a certain beauty about them which she admired. The two of them sat on a pile of boulders. Arturo reckoned the height of the mountains to be around ten thousand feet or more. Last night the two of them were cold, especially Meemai. Fortunately wood was abundant. He had guided them up the base of the mountains hoping to see a gap; but the more he looked, the more formidable and impossible this route became... Arturo had to accept that they would not be able to cross over the mountains. What other choice did they have? Moreover, they had no warm clothing. Meemai was barefooted and hurting because of the rough terrain. Arturo's boots were giving out; they had to be either repaired or abandoned and he did not relish walking the foothills of these maountain barefooted. But he would find a way to new shoes which would take him home.
He checked the sun; they had about five hours of daylight left. Their first order of business was to find a shelter for the night. She knew, also, a shelter was needed, so she kept her eyes open for an appropriate spot. Meemai was happy in these foothills, happy to be away from the place of Pio and Kwa-a's deaths. She still carried the bones and would do so for thirty days, then she had to break them, crush them and keep what she could of the ground bones in a bag for a year, later making a special "soup for the dead," using the crushed bones in this soup to be drunk out of the skull. Meemai kept Kwa-a's skull in her carry bag for the future ceremony. The laws of her tribe were still too deeply embedded in her for her to do otherwise. (Had Pio lived, he would not have allowed the bone ritual on the grounds that it was base and unChristian Through his gentle persuasion, he would have liberated her from the archaic ways). She still held to the stultifying obligation of archetypal, tribal traditions which burdened minds instead of enlightening them.
Meemai was the first to see the shelter. "Uu," look, and she pointed. Arturo followed the line of her finger. He smiled; a perfect spot: a long shelf of stone, a natural roof and slightly sloped, jutted out from an outcrop of bed rock. Adjacent were fir trees. All about were strewn pieces of wood and here were many dead and down trees. They would not suffer from the cold. Quickening their pace, they were soon under the natural roof away from the weather. They lost no time in laying down their gear to gather firewood. Several armloads later, Meemai knelt and took out her flints; while she sparked the wood into flame, Arturo dragged several large logs under the shelter, then sat himself down and rested.
Their supply of food was fast diminishing. For tonight they would eat the last of their meat; but they had plenty of roots. "Tomorrow I'll have to go hunting. I hope there's game up here," he said as he took off his boots and aired his feet. Never had he walked so many, many miles. How many? He could not even estimate. How could he?
Side by side they watched the sunset from their sheltered encampment. As the sun set, a wind sprang up; but the wind did not blow on them; nonetheless, the air was cold. More wood was placed on the fire; they snuggled up and kept each other both warm and secure. With his arm around Meemai's waist, he could feel how boney she was getting. Her body was still strong. She could endure great privation.
With the pelts of small animls he had snared, she had made herself a makeshift shirt and skirt. He knew, however, that their inedequate clothing and their lack of food in these rough foothills would cause them to suffer needlessly. and now he felt the serious obligation of protecting, clothing and feeding Meemai as well as himself. But he had come this far and had lerned to survive, and the caring for another person was no insurmountable problem. He was seeing how dependent she was on him and he on her: it never occured to him to start a fire, for she insisted she be firemaker. He then depended on her for fire and she on him for meat, his strength and consolation.
They fell asleep in each other's arms.
During the night a storm came over the mountains and dropped snow on the high peaks; and the wind, being strong, carried the storm from the peaked heights down to the foot-hills covering them with several inches of snow. When Meemai woke up she felt warm lying next to Arturo; but when she left the warmth of his side, she received the shock of her life: snow. For as far as her eyes could see, a white blanket lay on the land. she gasped in amazement! The earth had disappeared. She felt cold and built up the fire. It was hard for her to take her eyes off the spectacle of white before her. She'd heard Pio mention the cold white powder; she'd listened atttentively when he'd spoken of the white cold, but it had meant little to her at the time; but now the white cold surrounded her and she felt not a little afraid.
When she felt warmer (and more confident) she approached the snow cautiously, knelt down and scooped up a small handfull; it chilled her fingers; she took it to her nose and sniffed; it had an odd smell--faint that it was; she touched it lightly with her tongue; it had no disagreeable taste, but it was cold, colder than she had ever experienced or imagined. Making a small ball of snow, she put it in her mouth to bite on it; but it was so soft, she discovered that her teeth went right through and the cold hurt her teeth; but she was experiemnting and would persevere. The heat in her mouth melted the snow. She swallowed. "Oh, it has turned to water!" she said outloud in her own language. What a surprise. Boldly she stepped into the snow and took several steps. As bold and as brave as she was, the cold defeated her; her feet were so could she could not feel them; with uncertain steps, she made her way back to the fire and threw hot ashes on her feet, then rubbed the ashes all over. Her feet soon warmed and felt natural again.
She awakened Arturo with an abrupt push on his shoulder. Instantly he was wide awake; and when he saw the unexpected snow, he understood why he'd been awakened so abruptly. "Ha, ha!" he laughed. She didn't think anything was funny, but she smiled because she liked to hear his laugh; and when he laughed she was happy. This new husband of hers (as she now saw him) he was so very different from Kwa-a or the other men in her former village: he held her often, he helped her up steep areas, helped her carry her bag when she was tired; he treated her most decently and did not yell at her or show anger--and for that alone she was grateful. The way he held her in love--that fascinated her. The men in her village were not known for their gentleness towards women generally and particularly. And, considering their circumstances, he was a good provider and she was so appreciative of his protection.
Together they walked to the edge of the snow. He gathered two handfulls and made a snowball which he hurled at a not too distant tree. She laughed when she saw the snow ball explode, she scooped up some snow, made a ball as he had done, then threw it at the same tree. Her aim was true and she giggled with uninhibited glee.
Arturo sat and counted his ammunition: fifty rounds left and he wished he had fifty more. With five rounds in the magazine, he readied himself for the hunt. With the aid of the dictionary he told Meemai where he was going; and with gestures and words he understood, she made him to understand she would go with him. Her show of loyalty was touching, but she had no shoes and was ill-clothed; and in the best way he could, he pointed this out to her. She protested, but he insisted and she was equally touched that he so cared for her and did not want her to go lest she suffer from the cold. She cast down her eyes and that is when she saw that his boots were in such bad condition; she felt that with a thick needle and leather thongs and patches she could repair his shabby boots.
She stood and waved to him until he was out of sight.
Arturo walked in a great circle route using prominent features of the land to guide on. Periodically he stopped and searched for game or signs of game. He came to a gully and peered down into it; his eyes searched for signs--and he spotted one: a dark spore on the snow. He jumped into the gully; that's when he saw the tracks. He didn't know what animal made them, but he would find out.
The tracks lead up and out of the gully onto an undulating stretch of land. At one point the tracks went behind a high, conical rock and, to Arturo's amazement, he saw where the animal he was stalking had joined others of its kind, for then he had a wide trail of tracks to follow; by now he was convinced he was following some kind of mountain sheep. About a mile from the conical rock, he saw the small herd (as he'd surmised) of mountain sheep. An old ram with long, curved horns sat on a flat rock in the sun; two younger animals and two ewes (he could see their udders) were browsing under the snow. If he was fast enough, he could bring down two; he, therefore, had to get very close and shoot and reload as fast as he could. His life and Meemai's depended on his speed and accuracy.
With a stealth heretofore unknown to him. he crawled, walked on his kees, crouched; he contorted his body and squeezed it through gaps in the rocks so as to get closer without being detected. At last he was within fifty or so feet of the wild sheep who were never aware they were under the hungry observation of a hunter. He slowly settled him-self, raised his carbine, rested it on a firm rock, took careful aim at one of the ewes, held his breath, then squeezed the trigger. The ewe dropped where she stood. Quickly he opened the bolt, extracting the spent cartridge and reloading, the carbine roared again. The second ewe dropped. The ram fled at the first shot; one of the kids followed; but the second kid, which seemed to be in a panic of confusion, ran around not knowing what to do; the carbine thundered a third time and the kid died. Arturo ran as fast as he could to the kill, but he was interested in seeing if he could track the other kid and the ram. The thrill of the hunt coursed through his veins; his nostrils flared and he felt proud of his marksmanship; now he would have meat for his woman.
Meemai could not help hering the reverberation of the shots which echoed and re-echoed against the mountains. Her heart jumped a little. "He must have found some game." she said. Immediately, she went to the woodpile and carried an arm load of wood to the fire in anticipation of what was to come.
He carried the two kids and one of the ewes. He'd been able to track and shoot the other kid, but the ram proved too wily. He left the other ewe behind to be fetched later. He was hungry and had earned his dinner.
She saw him coming; she called out and waved; but because of his burdens, he could not wave back but yelled a protracted, "Hello!" which bespoke of the triumph of the hunter. As he neared, she saw what a mighty hunter he was. The chilling snow notwithstanding, she ran out to him and took one of the kids from him, then ran back to the shelter.
Cold and weary but happy, he sat by the fire sipping hot water while he watched Meemai gut one of the kids. When he was rested, he made to go. Meemai looked up at him quizzically. He pointed to the three sheep, held up four fingers, held out the carbine, then pointed in the direction he'd just come from and she understood. "He is a great hunter!" she thought. Off he went.
By the time he returned, Meemai had gutted the third sheep and was squatting by the fire cooking organs and meat. The smell made his mouth water. He dropped the ewe. He was tired. Meemai motioned for him to sit donw. She handed him a stick on which were pieces of liver. At last, food. As he ate, he surveyed their "home" loaded with game. He watched as Meemai went about gutting the last ewe. He smiled--he was living in primitive opulence, but he would have preferred to be in any humble dwelling back in civilization.
They had plenty to eat that night and the next day and the next. Together they cut up the meat and smoked much of it and stowed it away. Out of a piece of bone, Meemai made herself a neavy needle and with strips she'd cut from the belly of one of the ewes, she cut up one of the kids' hides and made herself a cape and a pair of foot coverings which kept her very warm. Arturo had put food in her stomach and clothes on her back. "My husband is a good provider," she thought as she lay down at night next to him.
Arturo's thoughts were on what to do next. Coming to the foothills had not been a good idea. They would have to go back to the lowlands and follow the mountains., Their chances of survival were better back in the forest, though.
The snow melted. Meemai watched it trickle down the sides of the rocks marvelling all the while at this transformation from solid into liquid. She'd come to like the snow once she was properly clothed and she and Arturo had gone out into it walking--strangely enough--arm in arm, something no man in her village ever did. She liked walking next to her husband instead of in back as was the tradition of her people.
Arturo loaded their supplies into the bags, Meemai and he hefted them, and on their way they went, following the chain of mountains, but now descending. A two day walk brought them to the edge of the forest, dense green, humid, green, similar to the one where the ill-fated plane had crashed. Unwanted memories clouded his mind. Suddenly he felt dizzy. He caught at Meemai's shoulder to avoid falling. With her help he eased himself to the ground. The dizziness passed after a few minutes.
They walked into the forest. Meemai felt at home immediately, but, at the same time, she felt differently in a way she could not accurately describe with words; she only felt the difference. She saw familiar plants, heard familiar sounds; the forest was the same, but she had changed.
She had come to like her thick wool shoes and cape; however, the humid atmosphere precluded her wearing her cape or her shoes; and she genuinely regretted having to remove them.
They camped by a deep stream. She made a fire while Arturo sat under a tree not much interested in doing anything. She had noticed of late that her husband was not very happy. Many times she had heard him sigh. Mile after mile she could see his unhappiness in his step; even the way he placed his feet told her something was wrong. But what? Was it something she was not doing? As a dutiful wife it was incumbent upon her to do what she could to raise her husband's spirts, make him happy and help him to see the joys of life. It had been carried down from the ancestors that a woman should do what she could to lift her husband's sagging spirits; what she felt she must do was ingrained into her very soul. Thus were the deep sentiments of a primitive woman who knew no other way to be than how she was. She would do something to bring his heart back to normal.
She rolled out her cape and motioned for him to lie down; he needed a little coaxing, but she got him to recline. Next, she took her sheepskin shoes, rolled them up and put them under his neck. She unlaced his heavy boots (which she had repaired) and what was left of his socks: they were filled with holes and looked more like netting. "Why did he wear them still?' she asked herself. He managed a smile, but dropped immediately into his melancholy.
By the stream grew reeds. She gathered a pile and began to weave; he watched her; she went steadily at her work and did not look up for a long time. she wove a cone-shaped basket, and in the middle she began to weave a smaller cone. She was weaving a fish trap: the fish would swim in through the inner cone and be trapped in the larger one.
Arturo saw her bring the fish trap to life in all its excellence. There was symmetry, a basic knowledge of form and function; in it was cunning, luring the fish in then entrapping them. Her hands flew as she wove the trap. Arturo was fascinated by her skill; there was a timelessness about what she was doing and he watched her, timelessly, until she got up, smiled at him, then walked into the bush, returning a few minutes later with a long vine as thick as a man's thumb and very strong. Another hour or so of intense concentration and the fish trap was finished. She attached the vine at the top and the bottom of the trap then walked up the bank until she found a place where she could anchor the vine rope. She put a couple of stones in the trap to sink it, then, as gently as she could, lowered the trap into the water. With that done, she nimbly made her way back to camp and lay next to him.
"A good fish dinner will lighten his heart," was her thought as she cuddled next to him, closed her eyes and took a nap.
When she awoke she knew immediately that she had taken more than just a nap. She could tell by the lighting that it was already early afternoon. She felt terrible for being remiss in her wifely duties, which she took most seriously. When she got up she realized Arturo was not next to her. "Turo!" (as she had come to call him) she called out to him. "Meemai, over here!" he called back. She turned, he was squatting where she had anchored the fish trap. As she approached, she saw two large fish on the grass and she also noticed her man was grinning. The fish were familiar and she looked forward to cooking them. She sat next to him; he took her hand. That was another thing she liked about her husband: he was so affectionate. (She had seen this affection in Pio, too). What man in her village would sit with his wife at a fish trap and hold her hand and make her feel loved? She would do anything for this man, anything.
Together they watched as two pike-like fish entered the trap. One of the fish hovered at the entrance; but in a flash it also followed and that brought to four their catch. Together they hauled in the trap. She carried the trap with the two fish still inside and Arturo, with his fingers in the gills, carried the other two fish. They walked straight to the fire and together prepared the fish.
While the fish cooked, she went to investigate some mushrooms she'd seen earlier. She looked at them a long time. These were not mushrooms for women; these mushrooms were for men who ate them then did crazy things--but the men were always happy, too. Perhaps her man would, also, be happy after eating a few. She picked four, put them in her gathering bag, then went in search of other edibles.
The leaves in which she had wrapped the fish to cook imparted an almost lemon-like flavor to the fish which Arturo liked. Meemai was pleased he liked the fish and the tubers she had culled and cooked. "What a good life I have," she thought as she helped herself to another piece of fish and stole a glance of her hero's profile alive with the leaping flames of the night fire.
The fish eaten, and the area cleaned, Arturo took out Pio's dictionary, adn with Meemai by his side, he taught her both English and Italian words. Afterall, he reasoned, "Pio introduced her to Italian and I'll introduce her to English and by the time we reach civilization she will be a polyglot." She was a smart woman and quick to learn. She had learned many new words in two languages; she was beginning to understand how to put the simple words she knew into sentences; at the same time Arturo was learning many words of her language. So between the two of them, they were able to say a few words to their mutual benefit. Despite this lack of clear and understandable language, Arturo had discovered Meemai had a unique way of anticipating his needs or requests which often astonished him. And she could read his face, his moods far better than he could read hers. This communication without words notwithstanding, Arturo longed to make conversation at length on a variety of subjects, But he was where he was with whom he was and he could not expect, intellectually, anymore than what there was.
She was not a good student in terms of concentrating on a text; she often grew impatient like a petulant child, and in her own way she would try to change the subject. And tonight she'd changed the subject simply by very gently closing the book of Pio's fine printing. She looked up at her Turo and smiled, jumped up and got her small carrying bag from which she took the mushrooms, held them out on her outstretched hands and said emphatically in English, "Eat."
He had come to respect her judgement about foods and he had had many a succulent root, mushroom, grub, tuber and the like from her; so when she offered him the mushrooms, he took them as a form of dessert. The fish had satisfied him but he had room for a few mushrooms. They were rather bland tasting, but they also had a rather pleasant texture and once masticated had the consistency of cooked beef marrow.
She was so pleased he'd eaten them; now he would be happy. A good hour passed before the effects of the psychedelic mushrooms came to the fore. He felt lightheaded but not dizzy; his hearing became clearer and his vision seemed to sharpen; waves of sudden, unexplained euphoria swept over him, and he began to laugh at he knew not what. His body felt light, his mind sped up; profound thoughts flooded him and images of fantastic creatures seemed to jump out of his mind's eye and dance around him. When he fully realized he was hallucinating, he knew the mushrooms had been the cause. He did not like having been given them without his consent. He was no stranger to such things, but he preferred not to ingest such potent energy unless he was the initiator. He knew he would be under the influence of the mushrooms for several hours. He believed Meemai had had him eat them to get him out of his funk. He could not be angry at her, for he was beginning to understand something about her comportment towards him: always trying to do things to please him, often at her own exclusion or sacrifice.
The drug was strong, but he was also strong and he did not obey its aberrations to run about wildly. Instead, he sat staring into the camp fire concentrating his mentations therein. In the fire was security, stability; in the fire was a center, a focal point to which he could cling when the effects of the mushrooms wanted him to jump up, prance about or send hallucinatory demonds to frighten him. He fought as long and as hard as he could. For long periods of uncountable time, he sat gazing into the glowing coals which periodically changed into a Medusa's head, then into a cache of shimmering diamonds and rubies, and all he had to do was reach out and grab a handfull; but he knew the precious stones were but an illusion.
Meemai was worried--he was just sitting by the fire. By now, she recalled, Kwa-a and his friends would have been running around the village naked, running in and out of the huts being pranksters. But not this husband; he sat and did nothing, and she was concerned. Little by little, she eased next to him. He turned to her and smiled and spoke to her in English:--
"The mushrooms you gave me are powerful. I'm having one hell of a time keeping my head from spinning off into the trees." His voice was soft, warm and continuous; he spoke on and on about something; she understood a word here, a word there--but somehow, by the gentle quality of his voice, she believed she understood something, and she sat listening, whether she understood his words or not.
The moon came out and its light penetrated where it could through the canopy of leaves and branches, casting its quicksilver glow into the forest. Arturo was swayed by the moonlight; he wanted to walk under it. He got up, offered his hand to Meemai, and, helping her up, they slowly strolled hand in hand, under the moonlight up and down the banks of the stream.
Arturo was serene in extremis; nothing could go wrong or anything untoward happen--all because of the peculiar chemistry of the mushrooms. His thoughts were cosmic, but he was reminded of his earthly reality by the smell of the forest's dampness, the sound of the stream and the sounds of the night, but most of all by the woman who clung to his arm as if she had been next to him all of his life, an alter ego incarnate. How strange that sense of foreverness was with her. Where did it come from? But, for where he was, and how he was living day to day, his life took on a timelessness he was starting to fade into; and it was not only the effect of the mushrooms, but his daily existence was based not on time, but in processes and events and actions. Time? He was beginning to wonder if it were not some giant hoax.
A crashing in the underbrush on the other side of the wide stream stopped them both in their tracks. They waited in silence and stillness. From out of the brush came the unmistakable figure of a leopard. Meemai froze and squeezed Arturo's arm tightly, huddling her body protectively next to his. Arturo, on the other hand, was fascinated. There was just enough light to see the beast and its shining eyes, and it saw them. Arturo knew no fear; he stared at the leopard and the leopard stared back not knowing what to make of the bold, unknown creture looking at him. For a long time the two stared at each other; finally, the big cat, tiring of this game, tossed its head, gave a roar which might have been interpreted as a sign of contempt, turned and went tramping through the underbrush, then silence.
Meemai's heart was still beating fast even after all sight and sound of the leopard were gone; yet in spite of her fear she was proud of her man who could stare at a leopard and show no fear. Still holding on to his arm, they strolled back to the fire and lay down. she wanted him. She drew her body close to his and showered him with caresses and kisses which he returned warmly and affectionately. They embraced in the deep love that was growing stronger between them everyday. And this particular night brought them even closer in this love between this odd couple of time and consciousness: the primitive arts united to the technological age; the primordial with the contemporary. Thus the ancient and the present lay in love, celebrating basic human sentiments, their diverse perspectives, notwithstanding.
She lay next to him, she pleasantly tired from the day and its events, while he, still active because of the mushrooms, sat stroking her head gently, rhythmically. Meemai closed her eyes, moved her body into a more comfortable position and let the rhythmic motion of his hand comfort her and bring her into a deep sleep.
Arturo's mind was alert, not yet ready for sleep. He continued to stroke Meemai's head long after she was asleep; the natural oil form her hair lightly coated his hand; he could feel the oil and he removed his stroking hand and rubbed the oil from that palm to the other. He enjoyed the feeling of her oil on his hands. She was a great comfort to him. He knew that in a while he would be very sleepy; he wished for that now; he did not want his mind to be so active. But there was nothing in particular he wanted to do, so he just sat where he was and stood vigil over Meemai, listening to the sharp night sounds and tried to keep his mind from wandering.
He put a long, thick log in the fire and watched it burn to ashes and by then dawn was breaking and he at last began to blink his eyes and nod. He snuggled close to Meemai, and pushing her long hair aside, he kissed the nape of her neck. And with the lingering taste of her on his hypersensitive lips, he drifted off into a fusion of psychedelic dreams and did not wake for several hours.
The rainy season caught them in dense country with very little food; and because of the rain, game was scarce. Both of them had lost several pounds; but they were, nevertheless, in good health, but always hungry and much of their time was devoted to seeking their sustenance where ever they could find it. Meemai had shown Arturo several edible plants and roots, so now two pairs of eyes were able to spot what could be eaten.
Arturo did what he had to do to survive; too often, however, he wearied of the hand to mouth existence they had to lead. Had it not been for Meemai's companionship, he would have despaired long before. He lived only for the day when he would be back among the security, amenities, conviniences and customs of the capital and old friends--oh, how he missed all the things and people he once took for granted. Each day dragged on; the monotony of the close jungle of bushes, saplings and vines, the incessant screech of animals and the din and droppings of the monkey tribes above them--and the insects--and now the perpetual rain; when the rain was not coming down in torrents, there was a constant drizzle that wore on his nerves, made his body feel heavy. But it was the wet which worked on him; at times he felt he would begin to mildew and rot the way his clothes were literally rotting on his body. His boots were useless; his pants were now rags, his shirt, too.
Meemai, being used to the long, dreary rainy season, took all its discomforts in stride; however, she did miss the gatherings of the women who would sit together with the children and sing, sew, weave, nurse babies, exchange small talk and gossip and tell stories as they sat around a fire in the long house keeping dry and passing the days of rain the way it had always been done. Meemai had the capacity to not let time get in the way of her daily life; in a way, she was oblivious of time--as Arturo understood time and its passage; time for her had very little meaning: a task took as long as it took to complete it, whereas Arturo was conditioned to think in terms of minutes and hours--even if he no longer had a watch by which to tell time. She was in complete harmony with her sourroundings and whatever intellectual knowledge she obviously lacked, her correct intuitions, her eternal patience, her ability to live each day as if it were the only day, made her, in a certain way, superior to Arturo, a holder of university degrees, a sophisticated and well-traveled, Twentieth Century man.
By the time the rain set in, Arturo was able to comprehend and carry on simple conversations in Meemai's language. At least that was an accomplishment he liked; the challenge of learning her language and teaching her more English and Italian was one of the things that kept him from going crazy.
By a swollen river with a cataract roaring nearby, they stopped to rest and decide what to do, for the river barred their way.
They sat close to each other for warmth and comfort. Their attachment to one another was deep; each needed and depended so much on the other. His arm hugged her next to him, moulding her into his body as if she were a Siamese twin, organic to him.
"Maybe if we go east for a few miles we'll find a way across," he thought. Meemai got up, looked at the blurry sun for reference, then turned east. She had had the same thought. This often happend; their thoughts commingled and they were in agreement about certain things without words or gesticulations.
Traveling east, they followed the swift, muddy waters filled with broken trees caught in the current and being carried, perhaps, to the sea. Several miles of walking proved to be futile. No ford was found. Arturo did not want to go further. He'd walked enough for one day. "Make camp," he said in her language.
A crude, but effective lean-to was constructed. With dry kindling Meemai always carried inisde her bag, she started a small fire to which she sparingly added twigs of damp wood. Once dried, they burned and she added more and more until the fire was burning hot and she was able to add pieces of wood as thick as her wrist to the fire.
Arturo delighted in the glow and warmth of the fire; he took off his wet, ragged shirt, stuck it between two upright sticks at the edge of the fire to dry, then turned his back to the fire; and for the first time in days, he felt good. Just being dry and warm was important to his well-being. He scooted backwards, closer to the fire; but the fire was now too hot to sit too close to; but for a few moments he allowed himself this small discomfort just for the feeling of being dried out as it were. His pants were wet through and from the waist down, in spite of the hot fire, he was still damp. For a moment he hesitated in shyness about being naked in her presence. He never understood that. He stood up and removed his tattered pants and stood naked in front of the fire. Although they had lain in love many times, she could still wonder at his body. Among her poeple men were seldom naked, though there were times when they were, and at first, with Arturo, she was a little taken aback; but she understood why he had stripped and so paid no mind to his nakedness. His body was different than the men of her tribe: he was taller, his legs and arms were longer and he had no decorative tatoos or scarifications; he was hairy, whereas the men she had grown up with had very little body hair except pubic hair. She marveled at his beard. It had grown quite long since she first met him. "Would it grow to the ground?' she wondered.
They had a little food that night, but, again, not enough to stop the constant craving for more.
By Arturo's reckoning, the rainy season was in its third or so week--or was it a month? He was having a difficult time judging the passage of days and weeks. He tried to hang onto things of chronologic structure, and calculating the days into weeks, into months some how gave purpose and meaning to the trying days. With the passage of each day they were closer to civilization--or so ran his reasoning.
Eventually they found a way across the river via a logjam. But the crossing was not without its dangers, for in the process, he slipped on the treacherously slippery logs and cut his leg. A gash about six inches long, but not deep, ran diagonally across his thigh.
Once safe on the other side, Meemai searched for a kind of lichen which grew near rivers. Her sharp eyes were quick to find what she wanted. She put some of this lichen on the wound, then wrapped it in leaves. The wound hurt and walking was a chore for him; so he called a halt and another temporary lean-to was built. Having been together for so long and sharing in everything, they worked in unison in making their shelter; each used his talents: they would gather leaves and vines; with his heavy knife, he'd cut cane or saplings for a frame, and with vines tie them together; and with leaves lay an overlapping, leak-proof roof and walls. So did they work now, with Arturo standing on one leg cutting and tieing with Meemai.
She always made the fire; but now and then Arturo would take it upon himself to do it. He did not understand that as a woman of her people she was the keeper and maker of fire. And every time he nonchalantly would make a fire he would notice a change in her. Though she tried to hide her facial expressions, he was able to see that she was feeling some kind of rejection, and he knew that something he was doing--or not doing--was the cause of her pained features. When he had come to know more of her language, he asked her, and, though he did not fully understand how deeply a part of her nature making a fire and keeping one was, he knew it was important for her to make the fire. But he understood her need as simply some kind of jealously guarded domestic chore and not as a tradition, nay an integral part of her psyche, an archetype elevated to a unique feminine role. So in his innocent ignorance, he acquiesced and gave no more thought to this. But as he lay with his wound throbbing and his belly aching for want of food, he asked her why it was that a woman was the fire keeper; and she replied in her own innocence, "Since as of old when our Mother Earth gave Ma-Heh-Ma-Heh, her daughter authority over fire, it has been this way and we Kweiwi women know no other way, my husband." He had to mull over what she said and had her repeat her utterance a couple of times before he understood her simple eloquence.
As he ruminated on her reply, his pity went out to her and her people for having locked themselves into roles and having no alternative. For him it was a kind of unconscious slavery. For her, however, it was an exalted position of ancient trust. For Arturo and his contemporaries the making of a fire was not a sacred act; no; it was simply a matter of striking a match or turning the wheel of a cigarette lighter. The sacredness of fire had been completely lost by his culture; but not in Meemai's.
They stayed in their lean-to until Arturo's wound was healed enough for him to walk without discomfort. And on that day Meemai removed the leaf bandage and medicinal lichen. The wound was closed and the scar was minimal. "The medicine liked you," she remarked most seriously. He was both pleased and surprised at the progress the wound had made, yet he smiled at what she had said.
One day they woke up and it was not raining. The sun rose in all its glory that rainless morning, and its shafts slid through the interstices of the forest canopy making light and warmth. The forest steamed; at moments a gust of wind would gather the rising steam into thick clouds and push them through the forest; and as it passed, suddenly all was hidden in whiteness and all sense of direction lost. For a few minutes Arturo and Meemai were separated because of the thick forest fog which swirlled around them like a frenzied dancer. Meemai was frightened a little for the suddenness of the fog, but she called out and Arturo called back and they were joyfully and quickly re-united. Hand in hand, they walked until the wind abated and the mist dissipated.
The lull in the weather gave them some respite from the rain, and for a few days they were able to go about relatively dry. Game came out, too, and Arturo was able to bag a couple of monkeys with his carbine and to club an armadillo. They ate to satiation--but it was always feast or famine with them. Meemai tried to get him to eat the monkey brains raw; but it was repugnant enough for him to eat monkey meat cooked--much less raw brains. The armadillo reminded him a little of roast pork and of the two it was the one he preferred. But repugnant or not, the monkey meat filled his belly and he was content.
With the monkey skins and the skins of other small animals he'd killed, Meemai sewed them together artfully so, making Arturo a pair of short pants which reached not quite passed his scar. When she found some appropriate grass, she wove him a pair of sandals and he left his boots at their campsite to rot completely and meld into the earth.
Too soon returned the rain and its concomitant miseries. Again the cold and dampness penetrated to the bone, and the gray days hung heavily on Arturo as he trudged in the mud and wet tangles of vines, branches, leaves and thorns.
It was on just such a miserable day, when the rain fell with a vengeance and again, for lack of game, they ate only roots and whatever else happened by, that they stumbled upon a cluster of delapidated huts built off the ground. The walls and roofs were made of woven fronds; and from the looks of them, they had not been inhabited for a long time.
The huts occupied a space which was once a man-made clearing, but which now had been partially reclaimed by the forest.
Cautiously, they approached and looked into every hut lest there be snakes or other large, wild animals inside. They found no animals. They chose the hut least ruined as their shelter. The roof was in relatively good condition. In the center of the house was a mound of earth surrounded by stones which had been used as the fireplace. With painstaking dedication, Meemai got a small fire going.
With a roof over his head and a fire, Arturo felt comfortable once again.
Eventually the interior of their shelter was warmed by the good fire. Meemair, glad of the find, went about cleaning the hut. With a frond, she swept the floor and, reaching as high as she could with the frond, she swept away as many cobwebs as she could. When she was satisfied, she stood up her improvised broom in a corner, put more wood on the fire, then suggested to Arturo they go in search of something to eat.
He lifted his head and looked out at the pouring rain which was not inviting at all. "Wait for the rain to stop," he said in low, tired voice, and with a wave of his hand, he motioned for her to join him at the fire. She could feel his depression, his pain from the gray, dreary days. She too longed for the sun; and even though she was accustomed to the monotony of the season, she was not immune to her husband's sadness, and in complete empathy, she was sad because he was sad. But she would think of something to cheer him up. If only she could forage, she might find something. She rubbed the back of his neck and stroked his head and bearded cheeks; she guided his torso to the carrying sack using it to pillow his head. He succumbed to her charms. She whisperd, "Rest, try to sleep." Her voice was soft, soothing and pleasantly authoritative. He closed his eyes. She hummed a phrase of sleeping music, one mother's sang to their children, a song she never got to sing often enough. He dozed off, and she let fall tears of a mother's sorrow for the children she had loved--one murdered by the stupid tradition of her people. In the midst of her sorrowful reflection, she was, nevertheless, thankful that her eyes had been opened to the horror which her tribe accepted passively, unquestionably: the irrational tradition of female infanticide. In the light of her own tragic circumstances, her new understanding and compassion went out to the woman who had given birth to twins shortly after Pio's arrival, which incident had been the catalyst for her new-found consciousness strengthening her against her former acquiescence to blind tradition. The great concern and compassion of her late friend had touched her to the core of her being. He had pleaded for the little girl's life, he had even offered to take her and raise her; and Meemai remembered how the men had laughed at him and made many rude jokes about him. They had been wretchedly unkind to him. In retrospect, she had come to realize Pio's act had taken more courage than any of the men of her village had.
She shook her head to stop thinking. She saw that Arturo had fallen into a heavy sleep. Soundlessly, she got up and went to the door, and, leaning on the frame, stared out into the rain. She let her warm tears flow with the rhythm of the rain. She tried to imagine herself again as a mother with twins--but Arturo's twins. A warm glow spread out from her heart as she gave vision to her thoughts in daydreams. But her empty belly growled for want of food. She turned and looked at her peacefully sleeping husband, who, when awake would be hungry. She wanted to forage, but Arturo had made her to understand that she was never to go out alone, that they must never be separated. She appreciated his concern--but they had to eat and there was still plenty of daylight and, if she looked hard enough, she could cull something in the area. She took another look at her husband as she bent to pick up her foraging bag. She took her knife, then quickly stepped into the rain.
At first she walked in back of the huts to see if there were any remnants of cultivation; but the forest had all but obliterated whatever cultivation might have existed. She broadened her area of search, going beyond and out of sight of the abandoned village.
Her practiced eyes searched the ground, the bushes and trees; but she saw nothing familiar nor similar. She went further afield, several hundred yards from her sleeping husband. She bent low to the ground and spied a plant similar to one which was a (potato-like) vegetable and very tasty. With the long knife she dug away the dirt and found several kimores, as she knew them to be called. She found a root and dug it out. In no time her bag was filled--but she would be back. On nimble feet she returned to the hut. Arturo still slept. She took half a dozen big kimores and covered them first with ashes, then coals, then some earth. She emptied the bag; and, taking one of the monkey skins, off she went with a happy heart, to dig up more kimores.
Back at the patch, on her knees, she dug up more of the earth fruits. Her forage bag was filled and now with the monkey skin apread out, she dug and piled the kimores, as many as she could. For her the find was a triumph, a joy--not only for the belly, but, also, for the spirit: to be able to have food (and now shelter) so close at hand. Meemai, too, was weary, weary of being rootless, a wanderer, never knowing where one would sleep and then always waking up in a strange place; at least when one had a fixed abode, there was a certainty of place which she lacked and for which she yearned: to be in one place and to settle down. As she lugged the heavy loads back to the shelter, she felt like a bird without a nest.
She woke him when the kimores were ready. Upon her return she put more of them in the ashes and tested the first ones and pronounced them done. She regretted she had no meat, for meat and kimores were a favorite combination of hers.
He smelled the good smells. "Where did you go?" he asked, and she turned her face away. He was about to say something about her being away unprotected--but he also realized if she had not gone they would have had a handful of smoked, leathery, monkey meat strips ready to go bad for dinner; instead they now had kimores with which they would regain their lost weight and maintain their health in order to continue their march back to his time, his world.
While they ate the delicious kimores, the rain continued its deluge; outside the water was running, covering the low vegetation and reaching up to the first step of the house; the original builders knew well the rain patterns to have had the foresight to have built their houses off the ground. As long as the rain controlled the environment, the two wayfarers would, perforce, remain where they were until the waters subsided.
But the water stayed because the rain did not cease. Day and night it fell in torrents; for days they heard nothing but the sound of the rain and the moaning of the wind in the trees, and their own voices. They rationed the kimores; they drank hot water and that was their diet. At least their stomachs were filled and they had some nutrients; but what they needed was fat. He looked at his carbine, picked it up. The outside of the barrel had a coat of rust; he opened the breech and looked down the bore; no rust yet. He'd found a small vial of gun oil in the stock but not enough to make a significant difference in the smooth operation of the Mauser. Considering the circumstances, even rendered animal fat would do for lubricating the weapon.
He walked to the door; the rain had not let up and the day was ending. He resolved, however, that tomorrow, rain or no rain, he would go hunting and not come back empty handed.
Dawn: the rain fell lightly, more like a heavy mist. No wind blew; the flood of water had subsided somewhat; in places Arturo could see patches of earth. He took his gun, loaded it and said to Meemai, "We will hunt." She did not question, but prepared to go with him. She took two big knives and put them in her foraging bag, and taking several kimores, buried them in the ashes. As they walked out, she turned to give their temporary home a quick glance. She smiled at her bare dwelling, How she wished it were filled with woven baskets and bowls, comfortable sleeping mats and all the things she counted on in her scheme of things domestic.
As they passed the kimores patch where she'd dug, she pointed out the plant to him. "Kimores; good kimores," she said in English, bending down and taking a branch and showing it to him. He studied the color and shape and made them parts of his memory, his life. He liked kimores. "When the rain stops we'll dig more kimores," he said to her in broken Kweiwi. She chuckled at his awkward syntax, but she understood him. She thought it astonishing that he could learn as much as he had; and if he didn't speak properly, that didn't matter; at least they could now carry on conversations and she would use his languages as often as she could. She amazed herself when she used his languages because the only language she'd ever heard was her own; and she'd believed her language to be the only extant tongue in her (limited) world. But when Pio (and confirmed by Arturo) told her there were many, many, many languages and that some were simialar and others as different as day from night, she had a difficult time comprehending that so many languages existed, and she looked forward to hearing other, different languages once they reached her husband's land.
They had walked a long way from the old village and found themselves in an area of huge trees under which there was very little undergrowth. Near the base of the trees Meemai saw what looked to be freshly dug earth--for her it was a familiar, unmistakable sign. She touched his arm for attention: "Look," she pointed. Upon closer examination they saw footprints. "Dojana, dojana," she said. "Dojana?" he asked. "Dojana..." and she made an ugly face and put a finger at each corner of her mouth to mimic tusks, tossed her head and made deep grunting souonds. She acted out the dojana until Arturo knew: "Dojana, wild boar, pig," and he, too, put tusk fingers to his mouth and snorted and moved his head close to the earth as if in the act of rooting as pigs are wont to do. "Dojana," he said, again. She smiled, they had once more communicated in a way now peculiar to them as a couple. And at the same time he did not know that in some ways he had become as primitive as she. They looked for more signs of disturbed earth, and, finding more they also found tracks which lead deeper into the big trees.
About a hundred yards from their initial sighting, Meemai heard a sound; she reached out and touched Arturo's arm. She took her fingers and covered her mouth, then pointed to her ears. He listened but heard nothing. Her finely tuned ears were hearing a far off sound. Meemai touched the carbine and acted out the holding of it in a firing position; then, with a wave of her hand, motioned for him to follow her. Quietly she lead the way. Arturo, at last heard the sound she'd been hearing. He pushed the safety off and tensed with the anticipation of meeting up with the wild swine.
The sow, whom Arturo and Meemai had been tracking stopped rooting and listened; its instincts were signaling caution. The sow stood still listening. but no sounds reached its ears, so it continued to push at the wet earth with its snout in search of food.
Meemai was the first to see the sow about a hundred feet from where they stood. Arturo took aim and fired. The bullet, however, did not hit the neck as he had intended, but hit the front shoulder. The impact of the bullet threw the sow down, and for a moment it was stunned. As it revived, however, it shrieked and grunted in anger and pain. When it got up the sow stumbled because only three legs supported it.
Arturo prepared for a second shot. But because of moisture and the lack of any lubricant, he was having a difficult time opening the bolt. The sow, now aware of its incapacitation, made do with three legs and, as best it could, charged the source of its misery. Meemai tried to turn Arturo to run; he would not move. The pig, its head low to use its tusks effectively, was half way to him. Meemai jumped for a low branch and pulled herself up and frantically called for her man to do the same. He was, however, determined to open the bolt to finish off the pig. But the bolt would not open and the sow got closer, so close in fact that Arturo had to jump out of her way. The pig stumbled and rolled over and that's when Arturo saw his chance: using the carbine as a club, he rushed up to the sprawled animal and, with a hard blow with the butt of the carbine, hit the pig's head several times, He beat the animal half to death with brute strength, almost cracking the stock of the carbine, With a swift move he pulled out his heavy knife and delivered the coup de grace by slitting the pig's throat. The pig was dead and Arturo was exhausted and sat down with his back to the tree in which Meemai had sought refuge. She dropped down and stood by him, touching his head. She was beaming, even if her heart was still beating quickly. The blood coursed through her veins; she felt an odd excitement which called up in her images of the hunters in her village and the pride everyone took in the prowress of the hunters. She felt proud of this man.
She stared down at him. His chest was heaving, his face muscles strained, his eyes half closed, sweat poured out of his forehead and neck. He lifted his head and saw the adoration in Meemai's face, and suddenly he felt disgusted with her, the struggle for base survival, the rain, the never ending forest--hiw whole environment was disgusting. "What the hell are you smiling at?" he screamed! She jumped back stunned at his heretofore unknown harshness. "I'm sick of all of this!" he screamed at no one in particular as he made a wide, sweeping gesture with his arm which dropped down to the soggy earth. His angry fingers dug into the soil and scooped out a fistful of dirt; he brought it close to his face and vehemently spat on it and with a quick motion of his strong arm, hurled it at the dead pig.
Meemai was afraid and crossed her arms as in protection and took several steps away from him. She'd never feared him--never--until now; but she was prepared to do anything to win back his former kindness. She was convinced that a wicked spirit had entered his heart. Arturo's anger did not subside, and he sat ranting and raving in two different languages; he cursed the day he'd accepted the employment which had lead to the privations, dangers and indignations and frustrations of his present circumstances. With snapping teeth, bitter words and a raspy hoarse voice, he bemoaned the loneliness, the hunger and injuries with a volley of damnations; he cursed the monotony of trying to stay alive in a world that at every opportunity would eat him, injure him if it could! But his greatest despair was there was not much he could do to make things better in such an environment, for there was a force alive in the trees, the earth, the water, a force which overwhelmed everything, entangled, strangled, mildewed, rotted; everything generated this creative-destructive force, everything received its energy and everything died from this quasi-mystical force. Never had he experienced the powers of life and death so actively. He was literally smothered: the oppressive moisture-laden air conspired against life and simultaneously gave life to so much. To continue to survive, he reasoned, to make his life and Meemai's a little better, it would do to stay in one place and limit one's dangers. This aimless wandering was disturbing his very being. What he wanted was to stay in one place and make plans and accumulate supplies, instead of the hit or miss, dead reckoning nomadism so much a part of his daily life since the start of this trek back to the world. He needed a rest and a respite from the trek. Through his anger, he was able to see that it was time to call a halt to their march. Convinced of this, he let go his anger and resolved not to leave the village.
He stood up and went to Meemai who did not at first understand his approach; she tensed until she felt the way he took her by the shoulder every so gently and pressed her against his chest, and she relaxed and encircled his waist with her loving arms and the lovers were re-united.
The pig had been butchered and much of it smoked and preserved; so for a while with meat, kimores and plants and roots and fruits, they were able to stay put for many days. He rendered some of the sow's fat using it to lubricate his carbine which was succumbing to the humidity. But the pig's fat would help for a while.
Day by day they sat by the warm fire talking or lying in silence listening to the rain. They, also, spent these hours teaching one another each's language; and both of them took on an advanced proficiency of the languages and they were thus able to be clearer in their thoughts.
And it was on one of these quiet, relaxed, languid days that he opened to her his feelings: "My spirit cannot take anymore of this wandering. I want to stay here and wait out the rains, even plant some kimores. I need a long rest. Ever since I fell from the sky I've had to struggle more than I ever did in my entire life. I'm worn out."
Meemai listened intently as her husband spoke to her in her own language; and although he made errors, she understood not only the words, but understood for the first time, his weary heart and weary spirit without having to guess through a blurr of stunted sentences and misinterpreted gestures. At last she could talk in long, concatenated sentences, let her mind run freely and talk about her own fears and joys and dreams and needs and hopes. These things they could now share.
One night as they lay in each other's arms, Meemai asked him (in a round about way) if he felt to be her husband as she felt herself to be his wife. He had to give this surprise question some thought. He'd never thought of her as his wedded wife; nevertheless, he reasoned, they did live as man and wife (under the circumstances) and he was greatly attached to her; he'd been too preoccupied to give thought and definition to his feelings about her.
As he lay there holding her, mulling over her question, he loved her loved her as a wife, lover, friend, companion, fellow traveler; loved her and wanted to be by her and with her. (Yet) a tiny voice in the back of his mind kept hoping this admission of love was not something of the moment, a temporary arrangement of convinience. He didn't want it to be that way, though.
"You are my wife and I will take you with me whereever I go. We've been through too much to ever be separated."
She warmed at his sentiments which she took deeply into her heart as he spoke in a soft, caring voice.
"I am fortunate to have you," she replied, speaking very slowly so he would understand. "I have never been treated so kindly by a man in all my life. Anything you want--anything--you only need to tell me. I am yours forever, until your Jesus takes us," and then, as if in after thought, she continued:--
"Is it true what Pio taught me? Does your Jesus take your soul when a human dies? Tell me. You must be my teacher. Oh, I love you so much. Hold me tightly; don't let go, I am a little afraid. Many things confuse me, especially your world and your god, your metal birds that fly--I do not understand, not understand..." Her voice trailed off.
Arturo was at a loss as to how to answer her question. He was no theologian and he wasn't sure about one's soul after death. In fact, he seldom gave voice to such thoughts; but now he had been asked and he did not know. However, he felt he must respond. "Is that what Pio taught you?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied ingenuously.
"Then believe what he told you."
"But what about you, my husband? You tell me: what am I to believe?"
"Believe what you want. You can't ask me to tell you what to believe. I can't make that decision for you. And, anyway, I'm not so sure myself about gods, souls and the things Pio taught you. Where I come from there are many viewpoints--very different from what Pio taught you and what he taught you is not believed by everyone. Do you understand that?"
Meemai shook her head. No, she could not understand so many points of view about the one god Pio had introduced her to. Among her people there was never any question as to the nature of the gods and never any dispute about the soul: there were, after all, some things one did not question--thus was the way of her psyche. But in the world where he was taking her, there was no harmony, no agreement on things so fundamentally correct for her. How strange. To what kind of world was she being taken? Meemai wondered.
And so they bided their time until the rains abated. Lingering for many days were the mists which rose up out of the erth and vegetation. For many days the sun burned off the mists and, for a little while, the air became mild and a garden could be started.
When that day came Meemai rejoiced as she and Arturo cleared the encroachments of the forest, then planted kimores. All around them was an exotic orchard where (now that the rains had passed) the fuits renewed themselves and one could wander afieled and pick delicious things to eat both from the trees and the pregnant, yielding earth.
Birds nested and their nests bulged with eggs. Meemai and Arturo robbed the nests of their eggs and cooked them; suculent, wild greens were abundant, and small animals which they trapped abounded. They lacked for nothing. They culled from the land its bounty and grew fat.
Arturo lost his gaunt look; his ribs did not show, and color returned to his skin. Meemai's skin took on a new lustre too and her body was once again well-proportioned. She felt whole; her health was good and she was happy.
Since Kwa-a's death she had kept a small stick among her personal effects with notches on it; this was her reckoning stick to measure the months to when she must conclude the ritual of the death rites with the bones of her former husband. With the rainy season it was difficult to observe the moon, so she used her monthly flux to calculate a ten month cycle. she took the stick and counted four months; with her knife she carved another notch, for just this morning, as she cultivated the kimores, her flow came. In a way she was disappointed; she wanted to be pregnant by her man and wondered why, after all their months together she had not become pregnant. She would often muse about what some child by Arturo would look like, for he was tall and light-skinned; she was petite and her skin as dark as the earth of the forest; her hair was jet black and her eyes were dark jewels which stood out sharptly against the whites of her eyes. What kind of a baby would they make? She smiled as she cut the fifth notch in her counting stick.
One day, while Arturo was sleeping during the hot afternoon, Meemai, who was not sleeping, heard a noise. At first she was not certain what she was hearing, for the sound was far away; but as the noise came closer she was mystified as to its source; she went outside and looked around. Meemai turned her head to the sky; far away she could see something, but what? The object came closer and closer; she stared in awe as the large propellor-driven airplane came into sight. Suddenly she realized she was seeing one of the metal birds Pio and Arturo spoke of. Turning, she dashed into the hut shouting, "Wake up! Wake up! Your people are looking for you!"
Arturo did not immediately understand until he heard the sound. "A plane!" he screamed in glee as he sped outside, almost knocking Meemai down. He looked up: a twin-engine Dakota flew by; it was close enough to see the air force insignia on the wings and the tail. He shouted and waved his arms and ran in the direction the plane was flying. Meemai shouted, waved and ran (too) thinking that the metal bird would hear their cries and somehow come down and take them away; but the plane moved on, indifferent to their cries for rescue. Arturo ran back into the hut to the fireplace and took hot coals on a leaf, ran back outside and started a fire. Try what he did, the plane flew on oblivious of the desperate man and the smoke he was making. "There will be no rescue today," he thought.
Suddenly he felt utterly drained of strength and he fell to the ground weeping by the unheeded smoke signal and felt supremely sorrow for himself. Meemai was sad, too; but she did not cry, for she tried to console her husband, but he would not be consoled. She therefore left him and went inside to get some water for him. What else could she do?
Day after day, Arturo waited for the sound of an airplane, but none came. He cursed the noise of insects convinced their raucous rasps and grates and clicks and buzzes would drown out the sound of a plane. A week passed, then two; then three passed. A kind of perverse reasoning had him convinced the plane would return. For those three weeks he would not give up. finally, however, he came back to his senses and realized no succor would come; and bitter that he was, he was determined to soon leave this pleasant spot and move on with the chance some outpost would be discovered.
But his depression returned and he did nothing but mope about. All his good intentions had come to naught. He felt his position was hopeless. As far as he was concerned, he might as well be on an island. He felt trapped, and inertia dragged his will down and brought him to almost a halt except now and then to help Meemai in the kimores patch, eat and attend to daily needs as they arose; otherwise he sat, during the day, under a large, broad-leafed tree, and at night he either lay or sat hugging his knees and staring into the fire. He did not bathe nor take care of his person. Meemai did what she could to bring him out of his funk, but her compassion, treats, coaxings and alluring endearments did not obtain.
His thoughts grew dark; sounds made him start; his sleep was disturbed, and often he would awake all in a fright from strange dreams.
Meemai was at her wit's end. She wanted to scream as loudly as possible to help wake him from his destructive, depressive stupor. She grew desperate (herself) for something remedial.
One morning she went off into the forest on the lookout for the mushrooms which might bring him out of his doldrums. She was a long time in finding any; they were not abundant in this region; but she did find enough to suit her needs.
That afternoon she prepared kimores with the psychedelic mushrooms and served the mixture to him. He ate perfuctorily, indifferently, as he'd been eating since his self-indulgent pity began. He ate, but he tasted nothing. Meemai brewed them some hot, semi-sweet bark tea; she drank hers with delight; he drank his dolefully and he never finished it. The heavy kimores made him sleepy. He lay down, closed his eyes and, in a few minutes he was asleep.
Meemai looked on indisbelief. Sleep? She had never seen any man go to sleep after having eaten so many mushrooms; yet what she witnessed belied her experiences.
But during the afternoon, during their siesta (while she slept) Arturo's dreams were vivid splashes of green, gold, blue, yellow and pink marble temples by a mystical blue sea flowing onto the beach of a tropical land with a bright yellow sun making everything sharp so that each leaf and each branch, every grain of sand stood out as distinctly as the brightness of the huge blocks of pink marble rising up a hundred slooping feet of stairs above throngs of devotees draped in magically bright robes of exotic cloth bedecked with feathers, leaves and flowers. Color, motion, sound--all were rippling and alive. People danced around the temple moving their arms and bodies in graceful ways while humming a soft melody to which they swayed in perfect rhythm in a circle surrounded by another circle and another circle...He was a dancer holding hands in a perfect dance of concentric circles. The image repeated itself, perpetuated itself; and when the brightness reached its peak, where everything in the dream was washed in a brilliance of golden light, he opened his eyes and found himself half dreaming, half awake.
The fire was (to him) both a cracked, jagged gem and a pulsating bead of lava, a harsh reminder of his reality, of his environment, layered over with the fantastic dream; and these two desparate worlds would not blend and caused Arturo much confusion. He really wasn't sure where he was.
In the quiet of the late and afternoon, Meemai's even breathing could be heard as Arturo stood up and walked around the hut trying to clear his head and re-orient himself. At the door he stepped out under a subdued sun, half hidden by clouds. Looking up to the muted orb and staring at it for a few minutes, cleared his mind and centered himself once again in his sense of self. Gone was the fluidity and grace, color and movement beyond normal human ablity and comprehension of the dream. Eveything about him was very concrete, very real; yet, because of the properties of the mushrooms, his awareness of things and his own thoughts were extremely sharp and swift. His hearing was acute and he kept hering a sound: something walking.
He stepped back into the darkness of the room and waited, his eyes trained in the direction from which came the sound. Closer came the step of feet--many feet. His heightened sense could hear them. Arturo became tense. Humans were walking in the bush! His acute hearing picked up a voice, a whispered but commanding tone carried to his alert ears. Sealthly, he moved into the hut, picked up his gun and quietly awakened Meemai.
"People are coming," is all he said.
Meemai was shocked. Had her people followed them all of these months? She didn't think so, but she was prepared and she knew at once what she must do: She took her long knife and followed Arturo out the back door, walking away from the hut, going to the right. Arturo deduced that the line of march of the approaching strangers would come out about in the middle of the kimores. Staying in the shadow of the trees, and hidden behind tall, wide ferns, Arturo and Meemai watched seven short people walk into the open. Arturo's keen vision saw the party consisted of four men and three women; he could make out that each man carried a spear and three men had bows across their backs.
They stopped. The lead, an older man called out, "Is anyone here?" He waited for an answer. While he waited the women squatted and being closer to the ground they discerned they were squatting in a kimores patch and as they looked around, they could see that people cultivated these plants. They whispered this observation to one of the men who nodded his head and went to the elder and passed on the information. "There are people here; the women are in a kimores patch." The leader nodded his head and the man returned to the women.
With a wave of his hand the elder beckoned two of the men to him and together they went to inspect the houses. Peering into the hut they saw the fire. One by one they quietly entered and one by one they saw all the signs of humans, but saw no one asleep. The older man was the father of the two sons beside him and out in the kimores patch stood his son-in-law, married to his only daughter and the other two women were the wives of his sons.
He gave further thought to the situation: a fire was burning, people would usually be asleep at this time of the day, however no one was in the house. The occupants heard them and ran away in fear.
"The people who live here know we are here; we out-number them. They must be afraid; we must call out to them that we will not hurt them."
They filed out and the old man squatted in the open; he lay down his spear and from a pouch he carried at his waist, he took out some cut roots and put them in the palm of his hand and extended his arm out in an offeratory gesture: "Someone has ulak roots. Does anyone want some?" He moved his arm back and forth in an arc in front of him offering to every quarter his peace offering.
Arturo and Meemai watched and listened. Meemai heard her language and understood the custom of offering something to another stranger as a gesture of being harmless. Meemai tugged at Arturo's arm.
She stepped out of the shadows and protection of the foliage, making Arturo walk ahead of her. "Someone has not eaten ulak roots for a long time," she answered in the traditional response.
The entire party looked closely and saw the woman and with her what seemed to be a man with much hair on his face and on his head. "What kind of man is that?" they all wondered.
Meemai guided Arturo through the protocol by instucting him to stop about five paces from the old man. She walked up to the man's hand and took two pieces of the ulak root which was sweet and could be sucked on and chewed for many hours.
She picked the two pieces of the root out of his hand slowly and, at the same time bowed (just a little) deferentially toward the old man. With a motion of her hand she waved Arturo towards her. "Sit next to me and suck on this root for a while." He followed her instructions, but he kept his finger on the trigger of the carbine.
The root took a while to soften; and all that time no one spoke. Arturo gave a good look at the members of the party; they seemed peaceful. The three women moved closer to get a better look at Meemai (who was, also very curious about the women herself). Arturo was liking the sweet of the ulak; its taste was similar (so he thought) to the dark avocado honey he used to buy near the Salton Sea in California.
Arturo did not feel threatened, so he relaxed his trigger finger and smiled at the old man, who, though the epitome of reserve, would steal quick glances at Arturo, then made down cast his eyes.
Meemai was the first to speak: "Where do you come from?" And the old man answered:--
"We come from the village of Anuma` where flows the high waterfall."
"And why are you so far away from your village, father?"
"A great sickness came and killed all of us except my family. It is very strange; none of us got sick. One by one our people died and we had to watch helplessly; there was little we could do. We mourned for a full cycle of the moon and now we are on our way to some place to begin a new village. We remembered that these houses were here but did not know if they were inhabited and if they were how we would be received, considering that we have come from a place of great sickness and death."
Arturo understood most of what the old man said and he felt confident enough to ask a question of the old man in the language he'd learned from Meemai: "Will you invite your family to come closer?" he said without an error. What he'd asked was rather unusual, for the ritual of making acquaintance was not yet complete; but the old man felt himself sage and felt the strange man and woman could be trusted.
"Come," said the old man, "we are among good people." The others approached and sat. Meemai, not forgeting her manners, invited the women to sit with her.
The old man asked, "This is not your true home village. Where are you from and why are you so far away from your village?"
There was no need for her to hedge and she told the truth: "My husband is taking me to his country." The old man nodded politely and the women raised a whisper among themselves, and, at the same time breaking their heretofore reserved posture by giving Arturo raised-eyebrows-looks of amazement and extreme curiosity.
"And where is your home village, my daughter?" asked the old man, now feeling comfortable in the presence of this woman and her strange-looking husband.
"My village is far away by the flowing river we call Ganala, but our village is called by another name."
"And what is the name of your village, my daughter?"
"My village is called Mana-ra."
The old man sucked in a quick breath between his teeth when he heard the name, Mana-ra. "This, then, must be that strange holy man we heard of who took a certain man's wife," he said, sotto voce, to his sons. (But Arturo's sensitive ears heard what the old man had said. The women who had heard the whisper were amazed--here she was, the woman about whom they had heard some stories from some hunters who had spent a few days visiting a village some distance from Mana-ra; that was before the plague, and it was also said that it was some sickness picked up at that middle village where the hunters had heard the story from some visitors from Mana-ra: a strange holy man from a remote country convinced a woman to renounce the gods and spirits of her peope and believe in a strange new god by using magic and cunning. They ran away together; and by more magic drove the woman's husband mad, for he left the village and never returned; and all were convinced they had also killed the woman's husband.
Such was the story, as it had finally reached the hunters from Anuma`, who retold the story with their own embellishments.
Before them were the very people who seemed like the characters in the story. The situation, all of a sudden, became very awkward. The old man did not know what to do. Should he fear them? Should he fear the holy man's magic and cunning? He was all at once unsure of what attitude he should assume. He'd felt no threat from them, though.
Meemai and Arturo sensed a change. They looked at each other in agreement. Arturo spoke without inhibition and not held back by traditional proprieties:--
"Suddenly you change. What is wrong? Do you know something about us?"
The old man listened to the words of his language coming from the mouth of the (thus far) quiet holy man distinctly. This strange man spoke very well; but one thing confused the old man--the story recounted to him had said the woman had run off with an old man with white hair and the man in front of him was certainly not old. Even with the long beard and hair one could tell this holy man was young and strong, too. The old man had been asked a question and out of civility must answer. Admittedly he was now a little afraid himself for the thought came to him that the holy man, through his magic, had changed himself into a young man; and, further, their approach had been detected far in advance of their arrival. Had his magic also detected them? The old man was confused and looked to his sons for consultation.
Arturo was now concerned and putting his finger back on the trigger, he stood up.
According to the protocols, one did not stand up in these circumstance except to get food or to fight. The sons were alarmed and immediately grabbed their speaks and stood up, too; the old man stood up, the women stood up and separated themselves from Meemai.
Meemai was horrified at the turn of events. She did not expect Arturo's standing up would be taken so seriously. But it had, however, and she must do something about the situation quickly. "I've been gone so long from my village, I've forgotten my manners, and I have not taught my husband our ways. I am sorry," she said in a voice of genuine apology.
The old man heard by the sincerity of her voice that she spoke the truth and he let the offense pass and calmed his family down.
Meemai spoke to Arturo and explained what had happend, He listened and felt foolish. Nonetheless, he was convinced the visitors knew something, and he wanted to know what. The tension, however that had been in the air was fast diminishing. The women, who welcomed the return to normalcy, re-assumed their nearness to Meemai and the sons once again sat down, but with their spears just a little closer this time.
Arturo spoke first to Meemai and explained to her what he wanted. She nooded her head, turned and addressed the visitors.
"My husband has asked me to say he is sorry; he did not intend to menace you by standing up; and further, he asks me to invite you into our home for food and rest."
This was not normal, thought the old man, but this man, this bearded stranger was not normal; so not to antagonize this man, he accepted the premature invitation in spite of protocol.
Meemai served up kimores and put more under the ashes. She had, also, some roasted parrot which the visitors ate with relish.
The women took foodstuffs out of their carrying bags. One woman had a wooden bowl of rendered and solidified animal fat mixed with salt and many herbs which one ate by dipping one's fingers into the bowl then licking and sucking off the fat from one's fingers. The women talked to each other and completely ignored the men. Meemai was happy to be around women and to be able to talk about things feminine. Being so close to Arturo everyday was good, but she often craved the company of women.
Arturo's command of the language, good that it was, did not allow him to indulge in small talk; moreover, he wanted to know what they knew; so when the men and women separated, the men started to talk about things Arturo could either not understand, or, could not relate to. The other men tried to be friendly to the odd stranger by asking him how many kimores patches were there and was there ample game in these parts, and how often he hunted--questions any man would gladly answer. But Arturo was not interested in this kind of talk just now.
He spoke directly to the old man: "I feel there is something you know about me. Can you say what it is?" The old man was not put off by Arturo's bluntness; the old visitor had come to accept this man's curious ways. And he answered just as candidly:--
"I can only tell you what I have heard: that by encantations you convinced your woman to give up her gods and spirits and run off with you and that you may have also killed her husband through a spell; that you are magic and can cause great harm thereby. That is what we heard from someone who heard it from someone else. That is all I know. We further heard that you were an old man--but I see you are young. Have you used your magic to change from an old man to a young man?" he asked.
The question asked was so ingenuous that Arturo could not help but become very humble by it. This old man was
confusing Arturo for the late Pio, and truly believed what apparently had become a legend of the late Pio's alleged magical powers. It was absurd; nonetheless, it was held to be true by these people.
And Arturo replied: "I am not the man about whom you have heard; that man is dead; he was my friend. No, I am not he. I am not young by magic. Do you believe me?"
The women had not been unaware of the conversation and they were waiting their father's answer, for it would then clarify the correct attitude and there would be no question about the relationship with the stranger and his renegade woman.
"And you did not kill this woman's husband with magic?" he asked, seeming to evade Arturo's question.
Arturo could not lie. "Yes, I killed him--but not through magic, but because he had killed my friend and he tried to kill her--he even tried to kill me! he said emphatically, striking his chest with his fist.
"It is true," added Meemai. "Moreover," she continued, "the old holy man did not enchant me, and it wasn't he who ran away with me, but I encouraged him to run away to save his life because the men in my village wanted to kill him because he was good to me as a father is to a daughter," her voice trailed off and she sobbed in remembrance of the gentle Pio.
The women went to comfort her. Once stroked her head, another held her hands while the third talked to her in loving tones while she rubbed Meemai's abdomen.
At last the uncertainty was broken and all the questions and tensions caused by misunderstandings were gone and the strangers--both the hosts and the visitors, gained a new repect for each other and gave friendship a chance.
The ensuing days were spent in getting to know one another through working, hunting, gathering, cooking and eating with each other. The women willingly helped Meemai in the kimores patch; four women could do much work. They walked together in the forest gathering roots, fruits, mushrooms and the like. Meemai was so happy to be among women again and the women were happy to have found a new sister and to be settled. They (too) were weary of wandering and looked forward to a respite and, besides, Kokora, the old man's daughter, was with child and her husband, Kokori, had an infection in his foot and more walking would prevent it from healing; and their father, although he was still strong, needed a rest and good food. Plus, they were curious about Arturo and they wanted to stay awhile and to satisfy their curiosity. They asked many questions, some of which were embarrassing to the more reserved Meemai: "Will your children be born with such hair as has your husband?" asked Tumela, wife of Emsa, the old man's eldest son.
Meemai laughed. She had remembered Arturo clean shaven and had watched the weeks and weeks of growth slowly hide his face again. "No; our children will not be born with such hair. Are children born with the hair which the parents have?" she answered. Meemai was still hoping to get pregnant; thus far her union with Arturo was fruitless.
The men, as a hunting group, were able to bring back much game.
Arturo brought his carbine with him on the hunt; but as it turned out, he didn't have to use it. The archer-hunters were fast and accurate. Lokwa, son of the old man, Omeru, shot two monkeys--one in mid air with a fast bow shot. Arturo had never imagined a person could be such a superlatively swift archer. He respected and admired Lokwa for his consummate skill.
The men were all so very curious about the odd thing Arturo carried. They didn't know what it was, but they intuited it was some kind of weapon. But how did one use it? It looked too heavy and awkward looking to toss, and, further, it had no point as would a spear; it had no feathers and it was not shaped like a big arrow, so it could not be shot from a bow--which he did not have. So, then, how did one use such a weapon?
Omeru was the first to broach the question. "What do you carry and how does a hunter use what you carry?"
Arturo went about explaining his "firestick," but the men were not sure of what he said. "If it can reach an animal in the blink of an eye--as you have said--then it must have great magical powers," said Omeru, and he spoke for all of them. "No, not magic, just chemistry and physics and engineering, you ignoramouses! Can't you see?" That was the sentiment that flashed through his impatient mind--which went unuttered, instead, he squatted and like Pio using the simplest terms he could put together to make sense, he explained the fundamentals of gunpowder and firearms. Omeru, Emsa Lokwa and Kokori all nodded their heads in agreement; but all were convinced magic, by and large, was the catalyst which made the firestick work.
On the way back from the hunt, Arturo saw his opportunity to demonstrte the carbine. Coiled around a branch in a tall tree, a fat snake, a boa of some sort most likely. They were out for meat and snake was good to eat. Arturo called for a halt. "Look," he said, and pointed. The mens' sharp eys saw the snake immediately. The snake was moving on the branch going to another, lower branch. The head was completely exposed.
Resting the barrel in the fork of a low tree, he adjusted his sights, took careful, concentrated aim, held his breath, then took up the slack in the trigger, then eased the trigger back ever so slowly.
The report sent the observers (but one) running in flight. The bullet ripped into the boa's head just at the back and tore out flesh and bone. The boa lost control and slowly uncoiled its body and the more the body uncoiled, the faster it fell until the tail was free and down came the dead snake, crashing through the underbrush.
Emsa flinched; he held his hand and arms close to his face and body to protect himself from the flash and noise of the firestick. He had wanted to see its magic no matter what. Therefore, he resolved he would remain--even if the magic killed him. He saw the snake move as if hit by a blow from a powerful man. How could that be? He shivered both in fright and confusion; nonetheless, he stood by. For a while there was an acrid smell in the humid air, and Emsa did not like it, but he knew it was part of the magic, foul smelling that it be, so he tolerated it.
The others came out of hiding only after Arturo and Emsa had already reached the snake and were pulling it out of the bush into a small clearing.
Omeru touched the dead snake with the end of his spear; he saw the gaping wound, the almost severed head and marveled at the power of the stranger's weapon; its magic was indeed strong. Omeru had recovered from his fright and now stood in awe of the great power shown him. Magic or no magic, what he had seen was a weapon of great potential. He imagined himself facing a leopard or a jaguar with such a weapon.
With sharp bones knives, they cut the long snake into four equal parts, making its portage easier.
After a few days of all living in one hut, the women agreed among themselves to split up the group: Emsa, Tumela and Omeru would stay with Arturo and Meemai, while the other young couples would share the adjacent hut which the women began to clean and prepare for habitation. While the men were out hunting, the women put the finishing touches to the renovated hut. Meemai brought coals from her fire and the women gathered around the mound of earth and sang a song appropriate to the occasion.
There was an unspoken sense of community among the women at the end of the song; each in her own way felt the start of a new village where life's routines could go on in one place.
The game was laid in front of the huts. After a recounting of the extraordinary killing of the boa, which the women found hard to believe (all except Meemai) all the game was cleaned, skinned and cooked on fires made outdoors. All the meat was cooked, and for a long time they did not want for food.
The feast or famine cycles of the forest did not suit Arturo at all. He had been raised in a system that gave him nourishment when he wanted it; he'd never gone hungry. But the forest was different: When it gave, it gave bountifully; other times the fruits did not grow, game became scare and roots were sometimes bitter. Arturo understood that this particular hunt was a manifestation of a time of abundance. But when would the time come when there would not be enough to eat and how could he store up things for such times? He gave some thought to this problem; it concerned him deeply. But his profundities were interrupted by Meemai's offering him a piece of white, steaming, boa meat.
She was proud it had been her man who had brought down the snake. It was one of her favorite meats, too.
The group ate outside close to the fires, close to the meats. Arturo's repugnance against eating monkey had long since vanished; not that monkey meat tasted any better, no; he ate out of the sheer need to survive. Looking back to his former life and how he had loved and the places he'd lived in, that life, by comparison, (so ran his thinking) might as well have been on another planet.
As he chewed the tender snake meat and listened to the conversation around him, it became very clear to him that he and Meemai's singular lives were over; that somehow this confluence of paths was meant for something--just what that something was he did not know. In the back of his mind a grain of an idea was growing, but it was too small for him to grasp what he was feeling intuitively; and, being lulled by the comfort of the company and the plentitude of food, he let go of his ponderings and joined in the conversation as best he could.
Omeru was saying that the two groups should unite in mutual protection and stay in the village and start a new life in this very spot. "Where is there for us to go? These people here, who have been kind to us--were they not sent by the gods as our guides? Have we not seen how prolifically grow their kimores; is there not much game about and have we not got along well? Look how much meat we have. We have four women among us--one with child. Is that not also a sign? We have five men who are good hunters and one of us has the firestick. Are all these not good omens? I think so."
He spoke straightforwardly, from his heart. Omeru was a man who gave much thought to his words. His tone and choice of words made everyone pensive. Arturo mulled over Omeru's words. His original intention for stopping was for repite and to store up supplies; thus far he'd not saved any food except some smoked meat which they had used to fed the newcomers; and, except for the kimores, nothing had been saved. And now Omeru was calling for a union of families to begin a new village where children would be born and people would grow old among their own, and life would continue to go on into timelessness laden with the burdens of the human condition and the forest.
Idealistically, it was a wonderful idea. But the question for Arturo was: Did he want to settle down in the forest for the rest of his life and raise a family which would become a part of this village? Did he want to remain at a subsistence level of existence? Did he want to give up books, ideas, witty conversation, social sophistication, music, literature, art and science? Did he want to give up civilization and dedicate his life to the exigencies of a primitive way of life--he, a man of the Twentieth Century? He thought, moreover, did he not yet have a responsibility to his family and friends and to the relatives and friends of those who had died in the crash? He did have that responsibility; and whenever he thought about his dead comrades, he truly felt the burden of the bad news he had yet to bring to the world.
No, he reasoned; he could not settle down in this temporary utopia of full bellies and high spirits from a successful hunt. He had to unburden himself of the sad news he'd been carrying so many months. His strongest images were always of Ugo. How could he not go to Ugo's widow and tell her of her husband's last days? Further, he had to give Pio's papers to the proper ecclesiastical authorities and give details of his last days, too. And then there was the question of Meemai: For all intents and purposes they were married, and he felt the deep obligation of bringing a neolithic wife into the face of jet planes, tains, television, money and the speed and competitiveness of modern life. Did he want to be wih her in (say) New York or his own city, San Francisco? Were his sentiments going to fade once he reached civilization? He was plagued by a contradiction he was seeing in himself. But he was where he was and what he would do or how he would feel once back home remained to be seen--but would his feelings for her change as he escorted her into the outside world with all its allurements and treacheries? He had all these questions on his mind, but no answers.
Late that night Arturo, who had waited for everyone to fall asleep, woke up Meemai. He pulled her into his arms. She let herself be taken up by him; being in his arms made her feel good. She gave herself a long time to open her eyes fully; she embraced him and snuggled her head into his chest; and when she opened her eyes she whispered in his ear, "It has been a long time since you have wanted me. Our visitors have kept us very busy, I think," she said in a sweet, almost impish voice. He smiled and gently pushed her away and looked at her at arm's length. They both smiled. "It is not for that reason I have awakened you--we can save that for later." She blushed and lowered her eyes. "I need to tell you something."
She relaxed, moved herself closer to Arturo, putting an arm on his shoulder. "Speak, my husband," she said with modest intonation.
"Omeru is a god man; his family is good; he wants us to help start a new village. I cannot do that. I must go to my people. If you want to stay, I will understand. If you chose to go with me, then you must be prepared to accept the consequences of where we are going and all the hardships we may yet have to go through."
Meemair riased her eyebrows. For her there would never be any question about where she belonged. "If you stay, I stay; if you go, I go," she said to him somewhat hurt. "I like a village. Being with other people is good for me--and good for you. But if you want to continue looking for your people, then I go with you. Omeru and his family can have the village. My home is always with you, my sweet husband."
Her deep loyalty touched him. He had not truly understood the depth of her feelings for him until now. No one had ever offered him such constancy and devotion. He was so deeply moved by her words, and, because of them, his entire relatinship with her changed at that moment. He took her in his arms lovingly and held her for a long time in affectionate communion. His commitment to her was forever established.
"When shall we go?" asked Meemai in a low voice as they lay down. "I don't know. But I don't want to be here for the next rainy season."
"We can leave when you are ready." He nodded and nestled his head on her belly and she stroked his head. Setting his mind free of worries and relaxing his muscles, he lay in a state of serene comfort and joy. He felt that nothing could harm him. Peace filled him as his wife stroked and soothed him.
Meemai liked his head where it lay, gently rising and sinking on her belly. Her spirit was touched by his serenity and she lapsed into that quiet world where all one's needs are fulfilled, not by material security, not by the proximity of her beloved stranger, nor by the security of numbers, but by inner peace: Sustained by this peace and not by air, food or wter, but by peace which is the natural state of the spirit. Meemai was no stranger to this utter surrender to her deeper nature. Many times in her life she had lain in the forest or in her hut in her former village, enraptured by the great harmony in which she lived. Everything seen and unseen, everything heard and unheard, everything tangible and intangible had meaning; everything in the forest world fitted perfectly; harmony and balance reigned--with her people or without them. Nothing in the forest was out of place; all belonged to a greater unity, unseeable, ungraspable by mere humans and Meemai knew how deeply in her heart that small though she was, she belonged to the great unity of earth, sky and spirit.
Arturo slowly, almost lethargically, moved his arm to her stroking hand. Their fingers blended; they fitted so well together these two. They came from two different worlds entirely; yet their humanness, their common nature brought them together not only out of everyday needs, but out of affinity for one another. He released her hand and touched her breasts and her neck, at last resting his fingers lightly on her lips; her breath surrounded his toughened hand. She kissed his fingers and just the tip of her tongue touched his skin. The spot of moisture on his skin felt like a small electrical charge and fingers delicately slid from her lips. She moved her body rolling onto her side. Face to face they looked into each other's eyes in which they saw the peace each was feeling and generating to one another. Their lips met and their arms entwined.
Between them now there was only one breath, one heart breathing and beating in perfect time. Slowly, slowly, they joined their bodies. They joined their blood and their spirits.
Dawn found them in a deep sleep. The power of their deep sleep affected Omeru who awoke at first light. He sensed something in the air, something quiet. He rose up from his sleeping mat sensing a special peace which permeated this early morning; he felt this in his bones.
He walked into the bush and relieved himself. Returning to he hut, he performed his matinal ablutions. As it was among men in his clan, his first contact with water every morning must be with the left hand, and with his left hand he scooped up water out of the water pit and splashed his face; then, with two hands cupped, he drank small sips, spat out onto the earth, washed his face and his ritual was over. He didn't know why men did this; no one knew. Because the ritual was so very old, all living men had forgotten the reason for practising it, the ritual was held (therefore) to be of sacred origin and should be continued without question.
Quietly he stepped back into the hut so as not to disturb the serene atmosphere. He went to the fire; with a stick he poked in the ashes for kimores. He piercd one, and wit the hot kimores on the stick, he tiptoed back outside and squatted, shoving the free end of the kimores-laden stick into the ground and waited for his breakfast to cool.
"This is a good place. I am happy here; although my heart longs for my people, I find my spirit at peace in this place. I will finish growing old here, and Kokora will give birth and a new generation will begin. One day, when I shall walk away from my body, I shall live in the big tree near the kimores patch. I like that tree; it shall house my spirit until I see which woman I want my next mother to be. Ah, I am happy here." He spoke his words in a low voice to himself.
Omeru looked steadily at the tree to which he would commend his spirit as one would a sacred icon. For Omeru to have this belief was very natural for him. (Arturo, on the other hand, would never have understood the old man's belief in re-incarnation). "The tree is strong and will be a tree yet for many years, so my spirit will also be strong.
Yes, this is a good place."
He touched the kimores with a wetted finger; it had cooled enough to eat. He bit through the light film of ashes into the flesh; steam issued forth carrying with it the earthy aroma of the delicious tuber. He bit off another chunk; it was hot in his mouth, but he had cooled his tongue with saliva. He chewed; the flavors of the ash, the skin and the tuber itself reminded him of so many other mornings in his former village where he had sat of a morning eating kimores and watching the sun overpower the darkness, chasing it away.
From the trees could now be heard the twittering of birds and monkeys. All the forest was awakening and now all the women were opening their eyes except Meemai. The women rose up from their mats, rubbed their eyes, stretched and yawned. Together they went to the bush and, upon returning, washed themselves; but unlike the men, they had no tradition which bound them about their ablutions without concern of what hand touched water first on a new day.
Tumela, Ansa and Kokora joined Omeru, but they did not speak to him. Well they knew and understood his habits, and each knew it was his habit to awake early and to maintain silence for a long time. Omeru did not like to talk early in the morning and his family honored his wishes; so the women sat in a circle (nearby) and spoke in low voices. Kokora had had a dream and she related it to her sisters:--
"I was standing by the banks of a river; the river was rushing madly. Down the river came a raft; on the raft was the stranger, husband of Meemai. He was shouting for help; but I could do nothing. I yelled to him, but he did not hear me. Then, suddenly, he turned into a jaguar, leapt to shore and ran into the bush; then I woke up. What does this dream mean, sisters, and will it have an effect on my unborn child? I am deeply concerned. How is it that the stranger was able to come into my dream world? I am a little afraid."
Ansa and Tumela drew their lips into serious posture and made low, questioning sounds. Then Tumela spoke: "Hmm, it may mean something and it may mean nothing. But how can we know? Did the stranger, when he was a jaguar, menace you?"
"No; he ran off into the bush."
"That is a good sign. In which direction did he go?"
"Towards the sun," replied the slightly anxious Kokora.
"It is the sacred direction; that is also good."
"He was on a raft calling for help," added Ansa, who had sat nodding her head at Tumela's sage insights, "he was in danger; you could not help him, only his own magic could help him--so he changed himself into a jaguar and got to shore. You could not hlep him, of course. How could yoy? But because you could not help him, he had to help himself. What do you think, Tumela?"
"What you say makes everything clear: The stranger needs help, but no one can help him but himself, and if he would but take the courage of the jaguar, he will be able to escape the danger and find peace in the east. How say you, Kokora?"
Kokora had listened attentively. The words of her sisters sat well with her; she saw the connections as were pointed out to her; the interpretation re-assured her and she knew that the child she carried was not endangered by the strange dream. She held her hand on her protruding belly and whispered a short invocation of protection to the Mother of All Things, then went into the hut to fetch kimores and to wake her husband. She wondered if she should tell Meemai of her dream and how the others had interpreted it?
Meemai and Arturo woke in the late morning. They could hear the women outside singing. Meemai smiled, for the song being sung was the song women sang when they are happy; and they had reason to be so, for the men, who had gone hunting, had not been gone for too long when they returned much to the wonderment of the women, and saw the men carrying not one, but two fat tapir which had been killed with one arrow each. A good omen.
A pit was dug, kindling and large pieces of wood gathered, And while preparations were being made, Meemai and Arturo went outside. The men were squatting near the fire which Kokora was feeding thick pieces of hard wood while Tumela and Ansa prepared one of the tapirs which they were wrapping in thick, broad leaves; and inside the cavity had been put kimores, wild herbs and salt.
Arturo congratulated the men and sat with them and heard about the hunt. Omeru said:--
"We walked into the forest, we had not gone too very far away, about the time it takes a man to eat six or so small kimores, if he eats slowly; we walked this distance when we heard a sound. We concealed ourselves; we became quiet; we readied our arrows. We were silent and we watched. The sound drew closer; we notched our arrows and pulled back on our bowstrings. First we saw one tapir and close behind another tapir. The gods favored us. We shot our arrows; we did not have to shoot very far--the tapirs were just two or three arm lengths away. Never in all my days have I seen such a thing! Never in any story I have heard has such an episode occured! Truly there is some great power attached to this area. I feel it in my bones. When I awoke I knew this would be a lucky day. The tapirs were hit. How could we miss? They squealed and ran; but we knew it would be only a matter of following them before they dropped. It is another sign. Is it not fortuitous this which I recount?" asked Omeru rhetorically.
The men nodded their heads and made deep sounds of agreement. Even Arturo was surprised. The hunt had been fortuitous, he had to admit. However, ran his thought, "Even so, it doesn't mean we will be so lucky all the time. No--it's no sign for me. I can no longer be fooled by this false paradise. I want none of it. My mind is made up. We're going, and that's that," so ran his thoughts.
The fire burned down to a bed of coals. Now the men, Emsa and Lokwa, took the leaf-wrapped tapir and laid it on the coals. Then everyone pitched in and helped fill in the firepit and cover the leaf-wrapped tapir with dirt.
From the time Tumela saw Meemai walk out of the hut she was aware of something different about her, but then and there she couldn't see or think what it was--but something was different.
Once the dirt of the firepit was patted down, the women cut pieces of meat off the other tapir and cooked it on sticks over some saved coals from the buried fire. While they worked and talked and sang short working songs, Tumela, looking at Memai (discreetly) tried to fathom the strong sense of difference she was feeling; but she could not find any answer no matter how hard she looked or thought. Meemai wore the same clothes; her hair was the same; she had nothing new, no piece of ornament. Even the way she moved, walking, bending over and helping to cut up the meat--something was different, perhaps more graceful about her; Tumela was not sure.
The meat on sticks cooked and while cooking, Tumela kept looking at Meemai out of the corner of her eye trying to detect whatever it was she was sensing. When Tumela saw Arturo offer Meemai meat and she take it from him, open her mouth and eat it, Tumela knew what she had been sensing all afternoon: It was not so much anything different about her physically, but that she was different in how she thought, spoke and acted--not at all as a woman should: A woman never slept late, never ate before the men; but this Meemai was too often with her man instead of leaving him to be with the men. "Yes, at last I see her contrary nature, and that is what makes her different. I do not like her presumptuousness, but I admire her for being so. Would that I had such courage."
Indeed, through the long, often dangerous months with Arturo, Meemai had changed because she was allowed, even encouraged to change by the way Arturo trated her, not at all like a man of her own people. Arturo treated her as an equal, respected her opinion, did heavy work for her, helped her cook--something unthinkable for a man unless he was off hunting. Even the way he took her in love was different and made her different, that way, too.
However, there was something else different about Meemai undetected by Tumela's sharp observations, undetected even by Meemai herself. For now she carried life within her. During her and Arturo's night of love she had concieved. Again two seeds grew inside her womb. Again dual lives lived, taking nourishment from her body and spirit. But the mother to be did not (yet) know this.
After the meat had been eaten, the men cut cane and built a small smoke house, where the other tapir would be smoked. The women prepared the meat in strips and the proper fire made and green leaves gathered which would make pungent wood smoke, thereby imparting a rich flavor and, at the same time, preserve the hanging meat within.
Later, after the smoking process had been set in motion and except for some weed pulling in the kimores patch, not much activity took place, for all were waiting with great anticipation for the tapir cooking underground to be done.
The men lay about languidly under the trees except Arturo, he was busy making himself a pair of sandals; he had leather and the sandals would cover his feet and lace around his ankles.
While he made his sandals, the women were busy mashing a certain wild fruit, very sweet, which Meemai told Arturo would sit for a few hours in the hot sun and turn into mi u-taka, a strong drink which, when one had lots to drink, all one's troubles disappeared--but the next day one usually had a headache. Arturo hadn't suspected they knew the secret of fermentation--crude that it was. He was curious about the mi utaka. He continued to make his sandals.
The other men looked at him through their half closed eyes each wondering why their fellow hunter would do woman's work, sewing and cutting and why did he need to cover his feet? Did he not know that the power of the earth came up through the soles of one's feet and to cover one's soles was to diminish that power? He certainly was strange in more ways than just his looks. Lokwa had observed that Arturo always washed his hands before and after he ate and after he defecated. He'd noticed, too, how he would put his arm around Meemai's waist and stroll about with her--side by side! around their small village. It was not seemly for a man to be so demonstrative in public. Lokwa, however, did not begrudge Arturo his strange ways, but he did not think a man should behave so.
While Arturo sewed he hummed a tune. He was happy knowing they would soon be on the road again back to civilization. He would eat tapir and drink mi utaka as a private farewell feast to this village interlude.
When the limp leaves were removed from the exhumed roast, a cloud of aromatic steam arose which immediately whet the appetite of all those around. They all salivated and their stomachs grumbled almost in unison for the tasty treat to come.
The meat fell from the bones, tender, moist and juicy. The women had collected a pile of thick, fresh leaves in which each held the delicious meat at which they picked with eager fingers. Arturo sharpened a small forked stick, and with his two-tined fork he picked at the meat without burning his fingers. Omeru had observed what Arturo had done and thought it very clever and practical. One could learn curious things from the strange man whom he was beginning to like, and he regrettd he had no daughter to give him as a second wife.
Omeru put down his meat laden leaf and from the wood pile chose a piece of wood. His sharp bone knife made points and he used his two pronged eating stick as he had seen Arturo do. Now his fingers did not burn and he wondered why no one had ever done this before--why no one had thought to do such a simple thing? "Not even myself," said Omeru's admonitious thoughts. "If the world he comes from is real, if all the things he tells us are true, then we are stupid for living here--in spite of the abundance of game and kimores. Why need we to suffer? He has said that it serves no purpose to hunt, for food was already slaughtered or prepared and there were houses where food was cooked and served to one and many people gathered in such places to eat. What more could a man ask for?" said Omeru to himself as he chewed the tender tapir loin.
Ansa and Meemai served up the mi utaka in fist-sized, hollowed out gourds the women had fashioned while passing some time. The froth on top reminded Arturo of beer, only the mi utaka's froth was a deep purple, like the purple of an egg plant, imagined Arturo. The drink itself was sweet and tart, deliciously so. It had the consistency of a thick fruit juice with pieces of mashed fruit to chew on. One, two three gourdfulls he drank, one after another; its taste was exquisite. He ate more tapir and while he chewed his cup was refilled by Tumela who sat at the liquor pot willingly serving up the strong drink.
All the men stared in amazement at the quantity of drink Arturo had consumed. True enough, they would put down their own fair share but all in due time, passing long hours in pleasureable drinking of the mirth-making mi utaka; whereas the stranger drank the liquor in long droughts, a thing unheard of among men. Mi utaka was to be drunk slowly, lest one get sick, then terribly drunk. They would have fun watching him.
In no time the mi utaka had jolted Arturo into a bizarre world of dislocations, mirth and false bravery, uncertain gait and fuzzy vision. He puffed out his chest and made a fool of himself by dancing around on wobbly legs and losing his balance and falling dangerously near the fire; it was only the swift action of Lokwa which prevented Arturo from going into the fire. He sat down for a while and regained his composure. Everyone, especially the men, had a good laugh. His antics, however, were considred normal. Arturo was supremely drunk, and he didn't want to be and, despite his stupor, he promised himself never again to drink mi utaka. Now being aware of how drunk he was, he sat by Meemai, held her hand and when the impulses from the drink urged him to some antic, squeezing her hand tightly brought him back to earth.
The other men drank and by degrees they got drunk and carried on by being loud, boisterous and easily brought to laughter. The women did not drink; it was thought unseemly if a woman drank mi utaka, and, anyway, they had a good time watching their menfolk be silly and they were able to laugh a little and unburden themselves of their private sorrows.
Each man paid for his drunkenness the next morning, especially Arturo and Omeru. They met outside after a long sleep; both were very thirsty, both drank deeply from the large water gourd. They sat under the shady eaves of the hut and commisserated with each other.
"I am no longer young and the mi utaka is very strong. Too much at my age is not good," said the old man in a slow, deep voice. Arturo nooded his head in agreement but had to stop, for when he moved his head he became dizzy and nauseous. "My head hurts very much and I don't think I can eat," said Arturo, who was regretting very much his binge on the previous night.
"That is normal," rejoined Omeru, with the hint of an understanding grin, "but you are young and, therefore, healthier, and you will feel better in not too long a time. You will be able to go to sleep with a full belly. You will see later how hungry you will become. That is also normal. The mi utaka demands much for its effects; but gives us back our strength by making us hungry."
"Never will I drink mi utaka again," said Arturo, his voice full of conviction.
The old man laughed at the seriousness of Arturo's voice, "We all say the that at least once or twice. Ha! You are young, enjoy yourself."
"No, Omeru; I mean what I say--not again--ever."
"What else is there for a man to do? One hunts and makes things for daily life--but one can't work or hunt all the time. What for? Life must be lived slowly and with joy--when possible. There is no hidinbg sorrow. I'm an old man, I have seen much; one can't escape old age or hard times or too much rain. How can we control anything? Since this is so, then one drinks mi utaka and suffers even its after effects. Everything passes, young stranger. It is not fitting for a man to renounce something good when he knows there is so much in this world which is not good."
Arturo listened to Omeru's words. But one side did not agree with him. Omeru expounded on attitudes and a way of life directly opposite the view Arturo held: That suffering was only a matter of accepting suffering. No, Arturo did not agree, but he was in no fit condition to engage this old philosopher in rebuttal; his head hurt--how it hurt! and no matter how much water he drank, his thirst was not slaked. He didn't feel much like moving, either, but he did not want to stay sitting on the hard ground. With some effort, and a helping hand from Omeru, he got up, walked back into the hut and went back to sleep.
His dreams were soft, colorful wisps of people and things which walked in and out of each other; trees used thick, long roots as legs and feet and walked about in his dream world. His mutable dream slowly transformed from the exotic surrealism of fantasy and mystery into things Arturo had direct experience in: A city, a wide boulevard with cars and citified people walking to and fro. From this sequence of dream state, he awakened (his headache now gone) to the sound of singing. The women were sitting outside playing a clapping game and singing along with the syncopated clapping. Arturo got up, washed his face and went outside into the waning light of the late afternoon. The men were ready to engorge themselves ance again with meat and drink.
The women finished their clapping game song and laughed with joy. They were almost innocent in the way they had sung and clapped; their spirits were light, their high pitched voices filled with mirth as they went about preparing food and making ready a place with mats. Pregnant Kokora used her protruding belly to help carry a basket laden with wild fruits from the hut to the area being prepared by her sisters. Arturo smiled; he thought carrying the basket in such a way humorous; he laughed; he laughed out loud; the very idea of a pregnant woman carrying a basket thusly--well--he found it very amusing, so he roared with a rollicking laugh. Meemai asked: "What is so funny?" He heard her, pointed to Kokora. "Look how she's holding the basket." Meemai did not see anything funny. "What she is doing is very practical and not at all funny," she said, then started to laugh herself at Arturo's add sense of humor; and she thought to herself, "My husband is sometimes very strange."
The days rolled by. Meemai noticed a kind of nervousness in Arturo she could not understand. In the distance, thunder. Another rainy season was on its way. Maybe there were two or three weeks before the annual deluge began, and Arturo knew this. He and Meemai would have to leave within a day or two or be forced to remain in the village for many (too) many weeks. Making up his mind, therefore, did not take too long. That night, after the others were soundly asleep, he woke Meemai and told her he wanted to talk to her. She was so sleepy she, at first, did not know whether she was dreaming Arutro or Arturo was actually holding her and in a whisper coaxing her to wake up from her deep slumber. Her consciousness cleared and she asked, "Husband, why have you awakened me? Are you not well? Has something happened?"
Arturo was touched that her first words upon waking were to ask after him. Meemai was always attentive and on the alert to his needs. He was sometimes jolted into shame because she was always trying to make things pleasant for him or be solicitous towards him; but he further discovered he was not so sensitive with her, and she reminded him of the qualities he needed to cultivate in himself and which he did not exercise enough.
She was now fully awake and with no preamble he went right to the point: "Meemai, we must leave. I won't stay here nay longer than I have to. This is not the life for me. I know you are happy in this place--but we must leave tomorrow or the day after--but soon. That's all I have to say."
Now aware of why she'd been awakened, she could understand the nervousness she had seen in him of late. There was no reason to ponder long, for she would not stay in a place he was not. "Give me one day to prepare. Now I must sleep; I will be busy in the morning." She took her hand and placed it on the nape of his neck and pulled him gently to her face where she rubbed her cheek on his cheek and nuzzled his ear with her nose. He moved his face and found her lips. They fell softly to the sleeping mat and there held each other closely and fell asleep arms entwined.
Meemai did not bother with a lot of long explanations when she told Tumela, Ansa and Kokora that she and Arturo were leaving. Tumela, with whom she was on the best of terms burst into tears. "Oh, no; don't go; I will miss you so much. You are like my sister. Why are you leaving us, sister? Have I, or the other women, been unkind to you?" said Tumela with deep emotion, whereupon Meemai started to cry, for she saw how deeply attached they had all become. The two women embraced and the other two drew closer and touched the embracing women.
Omeru's sharp ears heard the weeping and he opened his eyes wide. What could have happened? He went to inquire in great consternation; and Emsa heard his wife's cry and he put out his head from the hut. "What is going on? Can't a man have some peace?" said Emsa half in jest. "What is wrong?" Lokwa, who was stringing a bow, let the bowstring fall. The whole camp was in an upset. Soon the word was out that Arturo and Meemai would leave.
Omeru shook his head in diselief. "How can this be? Turo," he called, "is this so?" Arturo was sitting at the door sharpeninbg his knife. "Yes, old one," said Arturo, using the very polite form of speech. Even old Omeru grew dewey eyed. He had come to like and appreciate the stranger; now, suddenly, all was different for Omeru. the order he had come to rely on was broken, like a wound with precious body fluids draining out; he felt a pain of deep regret, for he was beginning to like the idea of growing older in one place, surrounded by good people. He was so saddened by this news and sat where he'd stood and brooded.
The younger men approached Arturo with somber facs and lowered heads. Everyone was truly moved by the news and now even Arturo was beginning to sense the distress caused by the announcement of his and Meemai's imminent departure. But he would not allow himself to be moved by their sentiments. He was determined to take himself and Meemai back to civilization and he would not be swayed to the contrary.
Arturo contiued to sharpen his knife; Kokori and Lokwa tried to convince their friend to stay. He was touched by their kind words, but not convinced otherwise.
The consternation of the women was great; they wailed as if in mourning until Meemai, through her own tears, spoke words of consolation which helped a little; nonetheless, the women had been shaken and their sense of loss acute.
"When will you leave?" asked Kokori of Arturo.
"Soon; maybe tomorrow." All the sadness of the camp was too much for Arturo even though he had steeled himself against it; but by nature he was kind and sensitive and he had to admit to himself that these people were also important to him. He stopped sharpening his knife and put it back in its scabbard, then got up and walked to where Omeru was sitting, as he usually did, under his favorite tree, and squatted next to the sad-faced old man.
"Old one," he said, again using the polite form, "my home is far away and I miss it so much. My mother, my friends must think I am dead. It is important for me to leave. Can you understand that?"
Omeru looked up, but not at Arturo, and spoke: "It is not difficult to understand one's longing for one's true home and family, but someone has come to hold someone in his heart as he would a son. Can you understand that, Turo?"
Arturo was stunned by the deep, but simple eloquence and sentiment of Omeru's words. But the sincerity of Omeru's feelings notwithstanding, Arturo had to leave; however, he could take Omeru and his family back with him. He experienced immediate elation at his idea!
"Old one, often you have questioned me about my people and their ways. Wouldn't you like to go with us? You would be able to see first hand the things you have heard me speak of."
Omeru lifted his eyebrows and his eyes opened wide. "Go with you and Meemai?" He asked in utter disbelief at what his old ears were hearing. The others heard Arturo's invitation and as Omeru tried to check his disbelief, the others gathered round the old man to hear how he would respond.
Omeru was not one to react too quickly even if something caught his fancy or his curiosity. Thinking slowly and deeply about issues was what he was used to ; after all, what had just been proposed to him was not something one did without a good deal of contemplation.
Emsa spoke: "Father, if you go, we will have to follow you; but I am not so sure I want to go so far. Are we not happy here? Have we not just begun to be resettled in a new life? We have kimores and there is game--you yourself said the same to us not long ago. Were we not to start a new village and Kokori and Kokoroa's child to be the ancestor of all those yet to come? How, then, can we leave since we have been given so much and go to Turo's strange world?"
Omeru listened intently to the clear thoughts of his eldest son. "Hmm," hummed Omeru in a deep and protracted sound to indicate he was aware of the implications of Emsa's soliloquy.
A tension of expectation was in the air. Two roads were open: To stay and carry out the generations in the ancestral forest of familiarity, or, to uproot and travel to a world which was akin to magic, a world they only knew about through the words of the stranger? Would it not be safer to stay where everything was familiar and understood? This, then, was the question Omeru pondered. He sat under his tree sucking on a piece of grass and twirlling strands of inner bark making string and thinking.
Omeru's pondering notwithstanding, Meemai and Arturo continued to gather up what they needed for the journey.
Arturo cleaned his Mauser while Emsa and Lokwa watched.
"Turo, will I be able to have such a firestick as yours--if we go with you?" asked Lokwa He spoke with innocence, with the pristine ignorance of a child not fully comprehending something deadly.
"There are many such firesticks in my world and it is easy to buy one."
Lokwas had a fuzzy concept of what "to buy something" meant; he'd asked Arturo (on a previous accasion) to explain buying when the topic came up. Of course when Arturo explained it as a kind of bartering, Lokwa had no problem understanding; but when later he was told about money, and working for wages--well--though Arturo was as clear as he could be, Lokwa shook his head again at the inability to comprehend working for wages, then using "money" to buy food, shelter, clothing, even a firestick in Arturo's world. That always perplexed him. In the forest there was always something to eat; all one had to do was hunt, trap or fish for it, or pick it off a tree or bush, or dig it up out of the fecund earth; everything, be it animal, root, fruit or vegetable was readily available. All the bounty of the forest belonged to him who would go in search for it. Lokwa understood the forest, but he did not pretend to understand Arturo's world, but he was eager to test it--yet he was a little afraid. However, if Omeru decided to stay Lokwa would not (truly) mind; but if they went he would go--gladly.
Except for the sounds of nature and the quiet, soft voices of the women talking from time to time, the camp was still. A peace, the normal peace of the forest reigned. The mircrobes in the earth and in the air lived, created and destroyed to keep the air and the earth of the forest alive; the insects of the earth and of the air buzzed and burrowed or wove or spat out sticky juices to make homes where eggs would be laid and new life begin; the roots of the forest plants and trees hugged the earth, hanging on for balance and nourishment; the birds of the air flew, and the animals of the ground ran or crawled on the forest floor or nestled in a nest or curled up in a lair in a tree hollow or hovered and drank nectar from a flower. Everything was working in a great self-balancing order where nothing, for too very long, was ever (really) out of order. The peace that reigned was the common peace of the universe, the same peace as from the beginning: Creation and destruction, the birth of a flower and the withering of a flower. The order and harmony of life, powerful life which moves forward inexorably, man and his customs and rituals, notwithstanding.
Arturo felt a great reverence, a reverence for the forest which he had never known before; and for a moment he regretted his decision to leave. He paused in what he was doing and let himself be pulled into the spirit of the forest. Deeply he let himself go; intimately he mingled his ego with his serene surroundings and passed into a time when men were undifferentiated from their surroundings and their consciousness was not yet awakened to duality.
He found himself floating in and out of reality and the preconscious dream of the forest uroborus. Arturo felt comfortable in this aborginal consciousness, but he was also well-aware of its limitation in his world. His long months in the forest had changed him, changed him deeply, only he was not (yet) fully aware of how deeply his psyche had transmuted, and in spite of his change, he longed for the big cities of the world. With or without Omeru and his family, Arturo would leave. He would give Omeru until tomorrow to make up his mind.
The day was bright and the sun was at it zenith when Arturo approached Omeru, sat near him and waited for the old man to speak.
Omeru, after having given the question a good deal of thought, had reached a decision. He called out for everyone to gather around him. With great anticipation they collected about him and waited for his words.
"Not long ago I praised where we live and it was my wish that we stay here and start a new village. Now our friend and his wife make ready to leave; our hearts are sad. Turo speaks of wondrous things--oh--my head is dizzy with what I have heard. I am an old man; I have done many things and I have seen much. I have an aroused curiosity about that world beyond our forest and I think, though I am an old man, how wonderful it would be to see such wonders. So, my children, we will go with Turo. Make ready, then, to go. We have a long path ahead of us. I have spoken my thoughts."
END PART II
Not only was Arturo supremely happy because he was at last on his way home, but also because now he and Meemai were in the company of others which made their spirits lighter and, in terms of hunting and gathering, with so many hands and eyes, life would not be as hard or as demanding, and the journey back to civilization would not be as draining as it had been.
He set the pace and called the halts; and without hurrying, he kept a steady rhythm in the march and in a short time they had been able to traverse a great distance. They had out-distanced the rains of the season and now found themselves leaving the forest and entering a great savanah.
The forest people had only known the depth and density of the forest, but now they were confronted with a wide expanse for the first time in their lives and they were not a little lost and disoriented.
The long distances dizzied their heads, for their eyes were used to the short field of vision needed for a crowded jungle where great expanses were rare.
Meemai thrilled at the pampas. She could look up and see the open sky. And when the wind blew, bending the tall grasses, it was like a benediction on the land, And it was here that she became attracted to the call of a certain field bird, a kind of lark, common and abundant to this area. She loved to hear its sweet, descending musical scale and watch it ascend as they tramped through the tall grasses. When Ansa came back with several of these plump larks, Meemai helped cook them, but she avoided eating them by sharing her portion with Tumela and Arturo. Meemai had never felt this way--ever--about an animal. But the song of this spotted lark had aroused some deep sensitivity to it, and to kill such a bird and eat it did not sit well in her newly aroused compassion; but she also understood others had to eat, her sentiments, notwithstanding; and so she kept her feelings to herself for the sake of the others' well-being.
Her heart was light for the sun, oh, it seemed she had never seen such a bright sun before and she rejoiced in this constant sun which shone hot and dry. There was yet another thing which added to her joy: She had missed her menses. Deep in her heart she knew she was pregnant, she had longed for it. she told only Tumela who had become her confidante and whom Meemai had come to love as a sister.
Each night they would sit around the fire talking, telling stories, singing. And it was during one of their sings that they heard a most curious and strange sound and Arturo knew immediately what was the sound: A diesel engine, some heavy vehicle, but by the clanks and screeches, he knew it was some kind of tracked vehicle. But what would a bulldozer be doing in these parts, and at night, he questioned? However, he concluded what they were hearing must be a military tank or other heavy armored vehicle. He was suddenly both elated and worried for (if) indeed there were military operations in this area, the little group would be in great danger, especially at night.
He quickly doused the fire and, after a few words of assureance, urged the party to move quickly out of sound of the mechanical beast groaning in the night
He told them to stay quiet and that he would go forward and reconnoitre. Silently he moved through the darkness like a stealthful animal on the prowl. When he heard voices talking in Spanish he stopped and listened. He was thrilled to hear this language again, but if his assumptions were correct and this was a military operation, then they were truly in danger. Softly, as he had learned to do in the forest, he crept closer and parting the grasses he saw the silouette of a tank, and leaning against the tank were three soldiers. They were smoking. Arturo could smell the familair odor of tobacco. "Do you think they will come, Lieutenant?" he heard one of the men ask. "Of course, Corporal, they will come; and when they do we will do our duty. We have enough firepower to decimate them."
Arturo did not wait to hear more; he had heard enough. Slowly, cautiously, he moved away from the steel giant and its crew. There would be no contact with this branch of civilization, he thought. The best thing to do would be to flee; and when he found the group he whispered that they must go. As they made to leave they heard the sound of another tank.
With Meemai's hand held tightly in his, they ran as quietly as they could. Arturo remembered a hollow about a mile or so back and thereto they ran, non-stop, until the hollow was reached. What else could they do?
They all looked to Arturo for guidance; they didn't know what to think and were hoping for some explanation and he knew this. He had no idea how he was going to explain armored vehicles to people who had no wheel and no concept of the wheel and could no more relate to a horse and a cart much less a motorized vehicle and an armored one to boot.
He conferrred first with Meemai; afterall, she had seen an airplane and had more of an idea of what a military tank might be. After explaining to her what the sound was and what he had seen, she turned to the others and this is what she said:--
"In Turo's world there is something which can fly and has men in it; and this something is able to go up in the sky because of a fire cuased by a liquid that burns. In Turo's world there are also many things similar to the things that fly, they are big, but they do not fly, instead, they walk around on round feet and make much noise. Inside there are firesticks, just like Turo's but which spit out very powerful darts very, very quickly and there are many firedarts all at one time; then there is a bigger firestick, and it has a dart as long as a man's arm and thicker. At night the men inside this moving thing would not be able to see that we are friendly; that is why Turo covered the fire and made us come here. This is what he has asked me to tell you," and she gave a nod of her head to him to indicate she had finished.
Omeru had learned not to question the sometimes recondite explanations he heard from Turo, and what Meemai said made sense and didn't make sense nevertheless, he respected Turo's knowledge of his own world and so instructed his family to listen to their guide and friend in all matters concerning his world.
They talked among themselves for a little while then the women wanted to sleep. The men decided among themselves on a watch and Omeru volunteered to stand the first watch and if he heard the sound again to alert the group. But the night was only filled with the sounds of nature, the sounds Omeru could understand and interpret; but the night sounds of Arturo's world he could not understand. What kind of "something" could have made the ugly, growling sounds he'd heard?
The dawn found Emsa the last sentinelle. He smiled with relief when the first light of day poked through the fat fingers of clouds which hovered in the sunrise's arch. He'd been apprehensive all night; now the light chased away his concerns and he greeted the new day with a short prayer to the eye of God. Emsa had not been totally convinced that leaving their new village was a good idea; but he went out of deference to Omeru, as should a dutiful son; buy after the scary sounds of last night, he was convinced they should turn around and go back before it was too late, for he felt some foreboding. But perhaps (he also thought) he was allowing his own fears to make a situation bleaker than what it was. He would make known his feeling to Omeru and the others.
Kokori awoke full of energy and curiosity for the day and what it might bring. He greeted Emsa who smiled and greted his brother-in-law.
"Why the look of worry on your face, Emsa?"
"Kokori, I am ill-at-ease and feel things are not well, But maybe I make much out of nothing."
Their voices awakened one, then another and soon all were awake. They sat around waiting for Arturo to make some move. Everyone was apprehensive and looked to Arturo to relieve them of their worry.
Arturo had slept little thinking over this matter. The only reason he did nothing was because he didn't know what to do. The army was in this area for one reason only: to fight guerrillas. That was obvious to him by what he had seen and heard. Minuanua was the remotest of the country's provinces and the government's soldiers were especially quick to shoot first and ask questions later. They were also notorious for not taking guerrillas as prisoners. Knowing this put him in a quandry, for he wanted to make contact with civilization, but had had to admit contact could be dangerous. And not knowing the extent of the operations, they could only wait and lie low.
The First Parachute Battalion of the Jaguar Regiment, the government's elite unit whose specific mission was to search out and destroy guerrillas, had been heliported in the day before to prepare the area for an ambush of a large guerrilla force of several hundred men who were unaware of the trap which was being set for them by the lst Battalion, re-inforced, with two light tanks, which had been air dropped and were now well-camouflaged. Helicopter gunships were waiting just a few flying minutes away to jump into the sky and bring their deadly weapons into the well-laid trap.
A raid on a rebel house in the capital had uncovered the operations plan for a rebel force which was moving, ever so carefully, from one end of the country to the other to start a large guerrilla action in the south--but they had to travel in an oblique way, for the other provinces were too populated and not sympathetic to the rebel cause, therefore, the rebel leaders selected the remote march through Minuanua, to avoid detection. But their operations had been found out
According to the operational order of the rebel commander, every day at noon, he was to call a halt and send a one minute radio signal to a rebel station to confirm the safety of the group and that the march was going according to plan. But today, at noon, the atttack by the Jaguars would commence, and their orders were to destroy the rebel column and take no prisoners, shoot the wounded and leave the corpses to rot in the sun, thus sending a clear message to the rebels that the government would give no quarter to the forces bent on destroying public order and the present regime.
Meemai knew her Turo was troubled so she stayed close to him and let him know by the way she touched him that she was with him in spirit, but she was also concerned for this primary contact with her husband's culture was frightening her and she wasn't so sure she (now) wanted to enter that world in which she'd imagined to be tranquil, but now she knew that was not so; however, she was loyal to Turo and she would go where he wanted her to go. there was now, however, not only her concern for Turo and herself, but also for the life growing within her.
Arturo did not like the situation at all. His intuition told him, however, to take no action, and get as far away as possible. His mind was sharp; his feelings of danger were deep and he wasted no time in telling his small band to pick up its loads up and go back the way they had come. "Do not ask me to explain, for I cannot," said Arturo. They did not question, but, instead, they picked up their loads and followed him. Emsa was glad and so was Meemai. Omeru had said nothing, for he, too, intuited danger and went away willingly, for he did not want to meet the monster which could spit out many firestick darts quickly.
Around noon they began to hear sounds, distant sounds. Arturo knew what they sounds lwere: Automatic weapons fire. "Run, run, as fast as you can!" shouted Arturo, and they all started running as fast as they could. Arturo heard the unmistakable sound of helicopters, but they were distant; nevertheless, knowing the destructive power of such machines he urged all to run faster to avoid any contact with the government's forces bent on total destruction of the rebels.
An hour or so later Omeru shouted for a halt. He could no longer keep up the pace, so Arturo slowed, then stopped. They were probably safe, but it was fear which caused him to keep up the pace of their flight. How ironic, he thought, that for months he'd wandered, enduring hardship after hardship to return to his world, and now he was fleeing with fear in his heart from the very world he'd longed so much to reach. He was confused, but said nothing to anyone--not even Meemai.
Arturo wanted to crawl away into some corner, hidden from the world and weep bitter tears. But that was not possible--not now, for as soon as Omeru and the others caught their breaths, he would urge them on. He was deathly afraid of the automatic weapons. Would there be a sweeping operation in their direction? He didn't want to be around to find out.
The sun seemed to be extra hot and the insects more pestersome than usual, and when dusk descended upon the small band, they were about to drop from exhaustion. No fire was built; food was eaten cold. A watch was estab-lished and each gladly lay his head down and slept. Omeru looked up into the sky and saw a sliver of moon and that made the old man happy. He sighed a sigh of resignation, closed his eyes and slept.
But Arturo did not sleep. How could he sleep? And even though he was tired from the day's march, his mind was active. He was confused and felt awkward with his wife and his friends; for had he inadvertantly mislead them about his world? In his longing for the things he valued and liked, he had failed to tell them about the contentions and contradictions in his world, the isms, armies, and what they do, the violence and destruction because of ideas. Suddenly he wanted to flee back into the forest and never come out. "Let them think me dead," he said, under his breath. Meemai, ever alert to his words and moods, leaned her head next to his neck and asked him, "What troubles you, husband?" She was there, ready to help. What could she do to assuage his pain? She thought for a moment. Yes! of course, she would tell him about..
She whispered what she thought would be the transference of the joy a woman feels when her heart's desire has been fulfilled, but her words brought only consternation.
"What?" said Arturo.
"I carry new life. Our spirits and bodies are at last united," said Meemai solemnly, yet she could not believe his response to her. Instead of pride (as she had hoped) she saw bewilderment. Arturo did not accept her news felicitously. Her revelation, it touched him deeply, but he also felt the weight of responsibility of a family in a place which was, it seemed to him, robbing him of reason and logic and perspective. He hung his head and shook it back and forth in negation of his circumstances which he bemoaned. Again came the welling up in him of wanting to be alone and sort out his confusions.
This new obligation, fatherhood, and not under the circumstances he'd sometimes fantasized about in his daydreams, left him drained. (No! I don't want any more!") screamed an inner voice of despair. He felt wretched. The idea of leaving them all and making his way alone presented itself in this hour of uncertainty. ("This woman next to me who now carries my child, what does she mean to me?") asked a voice of forced indifference. But he could not sustain his indifference, and felt ashamed he had sunk so low in his loyalty to Meemai and the others. He was disgusted with himself for being such a moral coward at a moment when to him self-preservation seemed foremost.
Meemai lifted herself away from Arturo and walked several feet from the sleepers, lay down on the ground, and, pulling her legs and arms close to her, she sobbed for the heartbreak she was experiencing. Had she given of herself so completely only to be made a fool of? Oh, she wanted to die for the humiliation she felt. she knew she should not upset her spirit so much lest she disturb the life she carried within.
Arturo heard her and each sob of hers was like a knife in his conscience; each sigh of hers ws a reminder of what she had done for him and how he thought he'd felt about her. But when he'd been told of his coming fatherhood, his sentiments collapsed. And now, however, he wanted to make amends and show her he really cared for her and would be true to their relationship and the child to be born to them. He sincerely felt he needed to make amends to her otherwise he would not be able to live with himself. "What a fool I am!" he said to himself.
He went to her in all humility and knelt beside her, touched her shoulder. She knew his steps and his touch and when he did touch her she deliberately ignored his touch and his words which followed; but she would have none of his apology. She loved him; she could not change her feelings overnight, but she would start now to turn her heart to stone for having been spurned. He did not care as much for her as she did for him and he even rejected their child! She was crushed. She did not want him for, obviously, he did not want her. His hand on her shoulder was not wanted; she rolled over twice to get his hand from her body and to get away from him. Picking herself up, she walked to where Tumela was sleeping and lay next to her friend and quietly cried herself to sleep, leaving Arturo more bewildered than before.
The mission of the Jaguar Regiment's First Parachute Battalion was over and it had been a complete success. A post ambush body count was almost four hundred. Perhaps two or three might have escaped--so much the better, thought the commander of the blooded battalion--any survivior would re-enforce the terror the government wanted to spread among the rebels. The bodies lay where they had fallen. Squads went about delivering coups de grace to the wounded, and by the end of the afternoon, all was over. The bodies were already bloating and flies were everywhere. The commander ordered his battalion to withdraw from the ambush site and regroup further away lest the contagion of the dead infect his troops.
He let the men rest and eat and gave the order to signal headquarters, "Mission accomplished better than expected," which would mean, according to the operation order, helicopters would be dispatched to ferry the troops back to their base, while the tanks, which had performed beautifully during the ambush, would return via the approximate route the rebels had marched, for a long, slow tank ride to a railhead. There would be awards after he made his report, maybe even a promotion. "Life is good," thought the battalion commander.
The bodies lay in their grotesque positions while the soldiers heated fieled rations over small fires about five hundred meters or so away. The message had been received and relayed to higher echelons, where, when received, congratulations were given among the general staff. The back of the rebels had been broken; for all intents and purposes the insurgency was over. Champagne was ordered and the word was given for the long distance helicopters to go forth and bring back the heroes to their regimental headquarters and be welcomed with military music and rituals and rewarded with a few days of leave and a campaign ribbon.
Just after dawn of the next day the far off drone of many helicopters were to be heard. Kokora heard them first. "Can there be some insect horde which is making the sound I hear?" she said outloud with a tinge of fear in her voice, which statement brought the low drone to the attention of the others, who sat bolt upright, especially Arturo. Here was another opportunity to leave now and in a few hours be in the bosom of civilization and the nightmare of the too many months in this wilderness would be at an end.
The helicopters looked like fat, wingless insects coming out of the horizon and Kokora hugged her belly trying, also, to protect her baby from the fear she felt. Arturo saw the helicopters; they reminded him of all the ugly things civilization had created to make life miserable for mankind.
("Here is your chance--take it, go to the choppers and get out of here and be rid of this place forever--leave everything") Thus spoke an ugly voice of self-centered, self-preservation; but he would not allow himself to be seduced by this lower nature. "The helicopters be damned," he said, and he waved his arm as if to wave off some pesky fly. "Meemai, bring me something to eat"
She heard something in his voice, something which told her it was not correct to harden her heart to him; nonethe-less, she felt she must guard herself lest she allow herself to be hurt another time. But his voice, when he had asked, almost commanded food, made her feel she was wanted and needed once more by him. Guardedly, but happily, she pulled out the things she'd come to know he liked.
One by one the helicopters landed and the troops, who stood in loading order, gladly boarded the machines, eager to leave the high grasses, the scorching sun, but most of all, the stench of the bloating, fly infested, rotting corpses.
Platoon by platoon the troops boarded; one by one the helicopters took their human cargoes back to civilization. The two tanks took their own route back by crushing everything in their path back to civilization.
The land was free from machines. The birds flew to and fro; animals roamed about as they had before the coming of the soldiers and their machines of war. Scavenger animals and carion eating birds engorged themselves on the meat left to rot. Every living creture went back to its routine. Even the earth, disturbed by the destructive treads of the tanks and the heavy steps of the soldiers, settled down and accepted everything undifferentiatedly.
Arturo and the others heard the heavy tanks go their way. And as Arturo listened to the diminishing sound of the diesel engines, he reasoned: The tanks would cut a swath straight to the outside world and all they had to do was follow in the path of the metal war giants. Although he was elated at this stroke of good fortune--in terms of a way out only--he still had to reconcile with Meemai and get his spirit in a proper attitude of reception of what was to come. He would soon be out of the thicket, so to speak, and be able to take up his life once again in spite of the brutality and inhumanity done to men by other men.
It was not too long before the wind brought the smell of blood and the dead to their pristine noses. Kokora, heavy with child, almost vomited because of the foulness of the air. They moved down wind and started walking in the approximate direction the tanks had taken, thereby avoiding the scene of the ambush and its aftermath. There was no need to go to it. Arturo had a pretty good idea of what might be found there.
Their circumambulation eventually took them to the path cut by the tanks. All were amazed at the trail of destruc-tion caused by the tanks; and they were thankful the monst-ers were in front.
Arturo would wait until until they stopped for the night before he would try to make up with Meemai. He knew she now felt differently about him, and he had to win her love and confidence anew.
Meemai felt good about being out of danger and felt good about being on the move again. Walking allowed her miles of uninterrupted thinking. She was thinking:--Her love for him had rejected, and that made her feel sad, for she had loved him to the core of her being. She now felt his love for her was not as deep. But what could she do, she reasoned? She still loved him, but she could not trust him. Her heart, however, wanted to forgive him, but her intellect would not. She walked and she thought and she gave herself no peace. How could she harden her heart to him? Afterall, his life was now inside of her. What a quandry she was in!
Omeru was as if in a daze; he had heard and seen things miraculous, things which defied understanding--but Turo had told him about the things in which men flew, so he wasn't completely unprepared; nevertheless, he'd been so overwhelmed with what he had seen and heard that his spirit and mind were discombobulated and what he really wanted to do was stop in some peaceful spot--not on or near the road the war monsters were making--and make camp for several days. This thought was still with him when Arturo called for a halt and the women made a fire and prepared hot food. Omeru waited until after he had eaten and had had a chance to settle down his agitated spirit before he decided to talk to Turo.
Arturo wasn't in such a good state of mind: The food didn't taste good; the ground was too hard; the water was bitter and ne needed to shave. He felt uncomfortable in his forest body. What he wanted was a good soak in a hot bath, some soap, towels, a sharp razor and, afterwards, a soft terry cloth robe over a clean body, a comfortable chair, a hot cup of coffee, something to smoke, a god piece of music, perhaps some Schubert Lieder or an opus of Chopin. He looked around him. Somehow, in spite of the ugliness of his world, he had to find a way to make them also understand there was a good side, a wholesome, creative, harmonious and orderly side of his world manifest in a hundred differnt ways. But he didn't know how to tell them because he didn't think they would believe him. Of utmost importance, though, was that he try to reach Meemai and win back her trust and esteem.
Omeru waited for the correct moment to approach Arturo. Arturo waited for the correct moment to approach Meemai, and Meemai wanted to approach her Turo and tell him how hurt she was, pour out her sorrow and ask him why it was that his heart had changed toward her and how it was that he could not want his child? Her feet were tired from that day's march, but her mind was sharp and she would wait for an appropriate time and do what a woman (so she had been taught)l should never do to a man: Challenge him, chal-lenge his conscience. Everything in her training told her it was wrong to do this; but she was no longer the acquiescent Meemai whom he'd found with Pio. She was a new woman, a stronger woman who would no longer be intimidated or who would hide her feelings.
All were tired and ate slowly, so by the time they had finished, their fatigue and digestive processes drove them to sleep, except not all would sleep.
Omeru sat in front of the dim fire with his legs drawn up to his chest and his arms hugging his knees; he craddled his chin in the space between his knees. He waited for the camp to be still and then he would speak to Turo. In the meanwhile, he would reflect more on what was on his mind. Again and again the image of the flying things flashed through his mind; the sounds of the rapidly repeating firesticks echoed in his head. What terrible things had been done! How could he go to Turo's world and take his family with him?
Arturo was lying down gazing up at the stars and feeling superbly insignificant vis-a-vis the myriad stars. The stars seemed brighter, larger, more numerous than he could remember. He wanted the night to last forever just so he could lie on his back and stare up at the stars; but he had things to do and his fantasy would have to give way to the conditions now holding sway in his life. He turned on his side. Meemai was not asleep and she was ready to confront her man; but she would not lash out at him. No; she would be her natural, good-natured self, warm hearted, yet with a new assertiveness with which she would either win him over or resolve to be alone the rest of her life, for she knew Pio's people (as he himself had told lher, and so she believed then, as she did now ) would take care of her. She would have help from the sisters Pio often spoke of. She felt the warmth and nearness of Arturo's body. Her heart leapt at his nearness--oh, how could she be stern with him? Yet her feelings, notwithstanding, she had to settle this or her spirit would never rest. Her body stiffened and she moved away from him slightly.
"Meemai, I must speak to you." She did not answer him, but waited prudently for whatever would follow. "Meemai--I've been thinking how deeply I have offended you and how deeply I feel for you--and how strongly I am attached to you--and you to me. That's important. You are like another self. It would not be good for me to be without half of me." Meemai shuddered in pure joy for his words, but she would not yield to him so easily.
Arturo continued: "You know how we have suffered and you know how happy we've been together. I want us to continue to be happy together. I can't say for certain why I resented the news of our chld--maybe it was just a weakness in my character--and the burden of running in fear from the war monsters. But I've come to grips with that weakness. Can lyou understand that? I'm strong--you know that--I've hunted dangerous animals--but I am only a man and I make mistakes, I do stupid things."
As she rolled over to face him, Meemai let the tears roll down her face. She'd not expected these sentiments, which, at bottom, were her sentiments, too, Her heart swelled with renewed devotion to this husband who was forever perplexing her and touching her deeply. Now she was released from what she thought she would have had to do: Challenge her Turo. But again she was made aware of how deeply he felt and how considerate he was and how kind he had always been to her. She reached up and touched his cheek most tenderly.
"Turo, Turo, my sweet husband, I had made my heart hard against you, but your words melt my hard heart. Maybe I am not such a good wife because I doubted."
"But you had reason to doubt. Do not reproach yourself. I am the one who was not correct. Oh, my lovely Meemai--we will have a child. Darling, let me hold you."
Their arms reached out and the strength of two hearts pulled one another until their lips met and the warmth of their bodies became as one. The hurt feelings, the ill-feelings were gone. The goodness of each soul reached out and hope was renewed. Arturo pulled away from his beloved Meemai and looked into her eyes and saw how deeply she loved him and how deeply he loved her.
"My husband," she said, "it was my original intention to question the veracity of your heart; and I was ready to lose you and live the rest of my life alone with Pio's good sisters. I was convinced you had abandoned me and our child to come. My heart was crushed, my spirit was weeping for the loss of you. Now you soothe my spirit and remake my heart with your tender words of care and affection. Oh, husband mine, we have come a long way and we can go even a longer way. My love for you is greater than ever I knew, and I think you have also understood how deeply you love me. It is a rare gift we have received. I will never doubt you again. Hold me tightly. I need you, Turo."
Her words moved him; and as he held her tighter their cheeks touched and their falling tears commingled as sorrow was washed way.
Omeru knew that things had not been well between these two. And as he sat, gazing into the fire, he had heard their whispers and, periferally had seen the motion of their arms. He knew they were reconciling; he would leave them alone, for he understood about affection and struggle between men and women. He could sense that their quarrel was over, but it was not his place to speak to Turo now; he would wait.
The embers glowed beneath the grey-white ash moist with morning dew. Another day was at hand. One by one the party awoke and greeted the day in his and her own way. Kokora felt something she could not explain, but there was a portent of something good in the air. She breathed deeply and exercised her arms and legs in a circular walk about the camp.
The morning was serene. Larks sang, and their songs carried across the pampas blending with the sounds of other birds which harmonized in the gentle morning breeze which bent the tall grasses and made dew drops slide and collide, forging larger, heavier drops which fell to earth to rejoin the ancient cycle of water.
Sun shafts formed a fan-like pattern as the sunlight burst through the holes in the clouds drifting as clouds have always drifted since time began, lazily, capriciously, softly through the air with no apparnt direction except to be pushed hither and thither by whatever winds prevailed.
Meemai woke up with the same smile on here face she'd slept with. She felt so refreshed, renewed; it seemed a heavy burden had been lifted from her. she heard the larks and playfully regretted she was not a bird with such a sweet song. But she had a song of her own in her heart, the song of love and precious understanding of self and her beloved, Turo. For her all the world was right because she no longer felt rejected. That was important to her. It was part of her nature to be wanted, to be needed, to belong; these things were important to her, as important as food and drink. Belonging and being needed were the essentials which brought her spirit back to its high level of vibration, and thus the qaulity of joy she felt upon awakening and hearing the larks.
Meat was cooking on the fire. As usual they gathered around and ate of the common fare--all, that is, except Omeru. Suddenly they were all aware that their father was gone! Emsa and Lokwa called out, "Father, where are you?!" And the women called out and Arturo, adding his voice, called out in the loudest voice. A voice replied: "Why do you all disturb the quietude of this morning with the noises of wounded animals? Cannot a human being be by himself to feel closer to his spirit? Stop your bellowing." The old man's admoniton, however, was only half serious. They saw him moving through the tall grass.
"We were concerned that you were not here," said Emsa; and Omeru looked back at his eldest son and replied, "Some day you will call me and I shall not be here," with which he sat and asked for food. Tumela served him at once and the others resumed eating in silence, and the high spirit felt earlier was dampened unintentionally by Omeru's somber words and comportment.
The tension increased and Lokwa spoke: "Have we done something to disturb our father?" He did not direct the question to the paterfamilias, that would have been rude, but directed his rhetorical question to his sister, Kokora, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, which was his intention, and their custom of bringing something to the fore without offending anyone. Omeru understood. "No, my children, you have done nothing to disturb me, rather it is an old man who has forgot his manners. No not you--but myself is to blame if you perceived me to be upset with any of you. My spirit has been uneasy and for all my thinking, I cannot see the way clear to an anawer or understanding. If, then, I appear annoyed it is because of my vexation." He felt a little better himself for having spoken and the tension in the group was lessened, and once again the beauty of the morning descended on the camp and the harmony of the larks was carried on the wind.
"Father," asked Emsa, "what is it that vexes our father?"
Omeru had the drinking gourd to his lips and his head tilted as Emsa asked; and the old man took a long drink,smacked his lips and returned the drinking gourd to Tumela, and with a swipe of the back of his hand he wiped his lips.
Omeru's countenance grew serious. "It was I who decided to abandon our new-found home to follow Turo to his people; but now I am not sure that was the right decision to make." He turned to Arturo, "My friend, do not be angry with me or think me fickle, but an old man can only be honest, thus he will not suffer too much during his old age. Although I gave our departure a great deal of thought, I did not know (then) the things I know now. I do not think I can live in your world, my friend. Can you understand that?" Omeru lowered his head and closed his eyes; his spirit was now at rest.
Arturo did not have to reflect on Omeru's words, for he understood this humble man very well. Had he not had his own misgivings? "Does this mean you and your family will return to our former home?"
"No; those who wish to continue with you can; I will put up no obstacles, but I would wish someone to return with me--but I force no one."
Tumela and the others looked at each other with looks of surprise on their faces, all, that is except Emsa, who wasted no time in speaking up first; he stood:--
"I am pleased to her lmy father's words for they are the very sentiments I feel, I will return with you, father," and he turned to Lokwa, "and I encourage you, my brother, to follow us." He sat.
Tumela shot a look to Meemai and back to her husband; she was caught in two worlds, for she wanted to continue forward, but she had to follow her husband; and she had become very fond of Meemai, but now she would have to separate from her. Deep in her heart she did not want to go back to the village; but go she must. Her tears came and she did nothing to stop them.
For the first time in his life Omeru winced at the sight of a woman's tears, for he felt how hurt must be Tumela because he understood how close she and Meemai had become. "You have good reason to weep, my daughter," he said--almost apologetically--"An old man should not confuse the hearts of the young. Perhaps I am, afterall, a fickle old man. Emsa, take your wife to Turo's world. Don't worry about this old man. As long as he has a few kimores, he doesn't need much else." But neither Tumela nor Emsa were cheered by Omeru's words.
"Who would look after you, Father?" asked Tumela, increduously; she could not imagine him fending for himself. Her pride as a woman was hurt; and with noble reserve and womanly indignation she said back to her good father-in-law, "Father, it is not correct for an eldest son to abandon his father, nor for a daughter-in-law to not care for her husband's father in his old age. We will go back with you," and she turned, her posture erect and dignified, and faced her husband, who gave a jerk of his head to her to indicate his approval.
Omeru was humbled by Tumela's words, but he could not admit that to her; nevertheless, her words had moved him deeply and he would long remember this kindness.
"We can leave when you are ready, Father," said Emsa. Omeru nodded his head.
"Since the three of us will stay, then we will yet walk a few days with our companions," said Omeru.
Meemai and Tumela ran to one another and embraced, and twixt laughter and tears rejoiced for a few more days together.
Towards noon Arturo called for a halt. Leaving the crushed tank trail, they rested in a clearing which had a small spring flowing therefrom. Each refreshed himself at the spring.
Kokora had felt something special about this day, and all during the (rather pleasant day's) march she knew that this day she would give birth to her child. She filled her water gourd and washed herself all over, then gathered the women around her and told them; and just as she finished, she felt her first contraction. Meemai, who understood partuition, was able to advise and comfort her the most. The men, informed of the impenmding birth, congratulated Kokori; then Emsa and Lokwa and Omeru went hunting.
The women withdrew a discreet distance and, with whatever material of nature at hand, they built a crude shelter, then prepared a place for Kokora and waited. They waited all that afternoon; the men returned from the hunt. They had bagged fowl and some large marmot-like rodents. Ansa and Tumela left the circle of women to help clean and cook the meat, leving Meemai with Kokora who held on to meemai's hand, squeezing it as the contractions came closer and closer.
The meat cooked, Tumela washed herself and rejoined Meemai, who was wiping the perspiration from Kokora's glistening face and speaking soothing and encouraging words. Kokora appreciated the care and attention from the women, but especially from Meemai who was being the epitome of compassion.
The contractions came more frequently, until Meemai saw that the baby had crowned. "Your struggle is almost over," she said to the mother to be. "Already the top of your baby's head can be seen. Keep up the rhythm of your breathing." Meemai wiped Kokora who smiled through her pain into the face of the ministering Meemai.
The men were nibbling and chatting normally, but they were all concerned and curious, especially Arturo, for he knew in the months to come he would, himself, witness the birth of his child.
The sun started to set but there was ample light yet for the women to see that the child just issued forth was a boy and in good health. Ansa left the women and went to the men and she called out to no one in particular, "A boy has come to visit someone," which was the customary way a birth was announced. Kokori was proud. "Tell the mother of my son I hope she is well," he said; so Ansa carried back Kokori's words which made the new mother happy.
The women stayed with the new mother who would be staying where whe was until the next day. Meemai took the severed umbilical cord and placenta and hid them deeply in a hole she had dug, lest some passing demon see them and harm the baby boy. She also put a stone over the freshly dug earth, to keep any animals away, then, brushed away her footprints. She performed these acts consciously, fully convinced there were in fact demons, one of whom could trace her footprints. Once back among the women, she finally washed and had something to eat. She was happy for Kokora, for her time had come and it had not been so difficult; and now that a baby was in their midst, she felt things would be easier and that reaching Turo's world would make their lives different.
On the third day there was a small naming celebration. It was the custom for a baby to be named by the father. And when they had all gathered ahd had had some deliciously cooked fowl, Omeru asked Kokori, "Son-in-law, what name have you chosen for your son?" Omeru was happy, for he had lived long enough to see some grandchild of his born. Kokori licked the delicious fat of the game bird off his fingers, smacked his lips, then took a long drink of water. "Father, for all these moons I was thinking of a name for a son. Then our life changed and we started on our march to Turo's world, so the thought came to me to call my son, Turo, after our guide, friend and teacher."
"Well spoken my son, well spoken, indeed. Turo is a strong name, and our friend Turo is a brave hunter and also generous You honor your son by giving him this name," said Omerua in his voice of archaic dignity.
Arturo was touched and pleased that a child would be named after him, even if the name was only partially correct; and he had come to accept and respond to Turo as a diminmuative; he rather liked it, too. Turo: it was a fine name for a newborn. He felt an avuncular obligation to the boy; even as he was feeling the warmth and pride of these thoughts, he also understood the child as another burden for himself to bear. All during this walk he'd been thinking that he would be responsible for these people upon entering civilization. But, of course, he thought, he would have help from some government agency. He laughed quietly to himself at the thought of government, for he had learned the harsh realities of the bush: The only laws which obtained in the forest were the laws of nature, over which man had little, if any, influence, and the law of survival: Eat or be eaten, a law he had come to respect, a law which had to be obeyed, otherwise, one would lose one's life very quickly. Yes, Turo was a good name, a new name for a new life. For him this baby was an infant alter ego and a deep attachment to baby Turo was formed, and with attachment came to him a new warmth, sentiment and understanding and anticipation for his and Meemai's child to come. He was now anxious to reach their destination.
"You are very kind to have named your son after me. I am sorry I have no gift for you," said Arturo, in the most formal way he knew. He had come to like the solemnity of their language and its depth of appreciation and sincerity. He squeezed Meemai's hand and moved closer to her; she welcomed the attention and the sensation of his hand on hers. There was, it seemed, a transference of energy back and forth between their hands. A rare thing was taking place: For a moment or two the body and soul of Meemai and the body and soul of Arturo held perfect harmony, that place of absoluteness, which every philosophy preaches; momentarily, because of their great love, they were the personification of cosmic union. Each spirit vibrated perfectly, and every atom of one truly belonged to the other.
A scorpion, bold as could be, walked up Meemai's leg; but where she was, in her altered consciousness, though there was the sensation of something, but there was no sense of danger; she was completely at peace with the universe, but her friends did not know this and Lokwa slapped at the scorpion. The spell was broken and Meemai almost lost her balance because of the sudden and acutely abrupt return to the human condition.
"Oh, why did you slap me?" she asked in bewilderment of Lokwa. Arturo's eyes snapped open at the startling sound of the slap.
"Didn't you know you had a scorpion on your leg, Turo's woman?" asked back Lokwa most repectfully.
On her leg lay the crushed arachnid. She looked at it for a moment with great pity, but then flicked off the finger-length corpse into the fire, and then washed herself off. But as she washed the death spot, she felt she had been to a holy place where death or human suffering had no sway and that hereinafter, she was truly a different woman.
The battle tanks at last reached a dry river bed which they would use as a road and within a day they would be at the railhead and them back to regimental headquarters, just outside the capital, and the men were looking forward to being out of their steel infernos and out of their field clothing. The river bed had not had any water in it for several years and the tanks' threads sent up great clouds of dust.
Omeru was determined to change his mind, but the birth of his grandchild sent the usually stable Omeru into a state of confusion; he felt trapped. He was afraid of Turo's world, and that is why he wanted to return to the forest. But why should an old man's fears control the lives of others? The forest was a beautiful place, he thought, but also a cruel place where often there was not enough to eat and that mysterious sicknesses could destroy whole villages; therefore, why stay in such a place? Back and forth the old man went, who at first had resolved to return to the kimores patch and live out his days. Now he wasn't so sure any more.
The second tank, because of the great quantity of dust in the air did not see a large, pointed mass of rock which the first tank was able to see and drive around. The thick, pointed rock, for a few seconds, was stronger than the steel and rubber treads; and there was a grinding and a twisting and the violence of something being torn in twain! the tank, now having only one tread, spun to the right in a wild arc. The driver, sensitive to his machine, knew immediately the problem. He geared down and slowly applied the breaks, and amid a flying of stones and billowing dust, the steel chariot ground to a halt.
"Shit!" screamed the tank commander, as he surveyed the damage. The lead tank, having been signaled by radio to turn back, stood by while the two young commanders discussed the situation. Neither of them wanted to be out here any longer than necessary; so it was decided to transfer arms and ammunition and spare fuel to the lead tank, and as uncomfortable as it was, the second crew would ride topside. There was a bit of grumbling from the crew of the disabled tank, but they were glad when the last of the gear had been transferred and they mounted the waiting tank.
With a roar from the engine, the tank sped off followed by a cheer from the tankers, glad, at last, to be on their way.
Omeru questioned his motives, pondered the future in the best way he would and concluded he was just a selfish man who thought only of himself. No; he would have to face the shame of (again) changing his mind and hope his family and Meemai's Turo would not lose respect for him, or think his mind was growing weak with age. Where was his life going? For the first time in his life he had no direction except now--to go forward--with Turo to his strange land with its strange people and their strange ways and accept the consequences; there was no going back to anywhere, there was only following the trail of the growling beast until Turo would find his people.
They, too, in due time, reached the dry river bed and still following the tank tracks, also followed the dry riverbed which would lead to civilization
By and by the silhouette of the disabled tank appeared. They stopped in their own tracks; even Arturo, who had seen tanks, for a moment stood in awe of the steel behemoth before him. He intuited that the battle machine was disabled and that the crew went with the lead tank; but still they might have left a guard; therefore, he, Lokwa and Emsa approached cautiously. When they were within hailing distance, Arturo called out, "Hello inside the tank!" Twice he called out, twice his call went unanswered. Taking his time, Arturo and the others started to walk around the tank, and that's when he saw the broken tread and he was certain there was no guard about. He called for a hand up. Emsa and Lokwa were reluctant to approach the tank, but Arturo coaxed them and they gave him a boost. He climbed to the top of the turret and opened the hatch cover and peered in.
A smell of fuel oil and the stale smell of humans escaped into the air; and upon his smelling these obnoxious stinks, a dozen memories tried to force themselves on him. He lifted the hatch cover all the way. "Don't be afraid," he called down to the apprehensive men, "come up," and he motioned with his hand. Emsa stepped back, but Lokwa put a hand on the not steel and nimbly made his way to Arturo's side while Emsa stood his ground and refused to be so close, for the smell of the thing nauseated him.
Inside Arturo was able to make out dials, levers, switches, electric lights, a radio! In a flash he conceived of an idea to get them all out: the radio. But Lokwa was curious about so many things and Arturo was wanting to satisfy his curiosity and, at the same time, find the power switch for the radio. Lokwa picked up a pair of oil-stained leather gloves. "Turo, what are these?" he asked ingenuosly. Arturo explained gloves, but before he could finish, Lokwa asked about the driver's seat and the levers. When informed of the seat's function and what the levers did, he scrambled up the turrett and waved his arms to Omeru and the women shouting, "Come and see the bones of this beast!"
Even Kokora, who was giving little Turo suck walked a little faster a bit apprehensive, but her interest was nonetheless aroused.
Everyone--even Emsa after a while--wanted to see inside and Arturo had to give up finding out how the radio worked. He did find, however, a flashlight and it would soon come in handy.
It was Omeru who found the unopened case of army field rations and asked what it was. Arturo opened it and found cans of meat, beans, soups, crackers, powered coffee, sugar and milk. In one small box, wrapped in sealed aluminum foil, he found several packs of cigarettes and wooden matches. There was some fruitcake and several small, sharp can openers and a bag of plastic spoons. No one except Arturo (of course) knew what anything was--all that is except Meemai. How well she remembered the shape of the containers from which had come meat and milk when she and Turo first met, and for a moment she felt proud that she knew what was in the containers, but then she thought how odd it was for a human being to get one's food in such a way.
Outside the women made a fire, and the field ration cans were first dented, then put into the fire, unopened. When heated, Arturo opened the first one with one of the sharp openers while holding the hot can with one of the found gloves as the others looked on in fascination, for Meemai had told them her man had cooked their dinner and each waited in great anticipation of what was to come. Meemai had lured their curiosity and whetted their appetites. A demonstration by Arturo on how to use a spoon caused everyone to burst into laughter, for eating implements other than fingers and knives were unknown to them. They, however, learned their first lesson in the new ways of Arturo's world quickly enough.
Omeru tried to like the new food, but he had to acquiesce to his truer nature and so he turned his head and spat out, and, with a scoop of sand, covered up the unsightly masticant, and, asking for water, rinsed out his mouth. "I am sorry, Turo, but your food does not like me," he said, trying to be most polite.
Arturo burst into guffaws and Omeru almost misinterpreted Arturo's laughter; but the old man was beginning to understand Turo more and, instead, laughed (himself) with him. Arturo picked up the can out of which Omeru had eaten and read the label: "Beans and Sausage." He tasted them himself; and, in spite of his long deprivation, the food had a familiar and satisfying taste; but plainly, this food was most certainly not representative of the foods offered in his own world, and he said so. "What you have just eaten is inferior, nourishing, but not really so good. Wait until we have reached our destination." Omeru nodded his head to give Arturo the beenfit of the doubt.
The sun dropped below the tree tops; crepuscular insects danced in the air while birds of the hour supped on them while the gold of the day turned to purple and darkened until the first stars could be seen; and it was when the first stars were visible that Arturo, to the amazement of everyone, took out the flashlight and turned it on, flashing the beam on the ground, on the tank and on his dumbfounded friends. "What is this small moon and how do you make it shine so?" asked Ansa in complete innocence and trust. Arturo was at a loss how to explain--in terms they could relate to--the storage of what they would know as lightning in a small tube, the battery. He passed the flashlight around and each turned it both off and on in utter fascination and they forgot all about an explanation.
Night would bring a alowering of the ionosphere, thereby making radio transmission clearer to receive.
The flashlight passed back to Arturo who used it to make his way back into the tank with Meemai right behind him.
In the beam of the flashlight the power switch stood out on the olive drab radio. Arturo turned the switch to "on,." A small red light came on, all the dials lit up and the tuning band stood out like a silver ribbon inscribed with horizontal numbers and tuning lines. Arturo smiled and his eyes glowed. He assumed the radio was already set to a battalion or regimental net; so he picked up the microphone, pushed the "talk" button and said: "May Day, May Day, May Day. Please answer. Over." He repeated the phrase several times, then waited. He waited perhaps five minutes, then spoke again into the microphone.
All the while Meemai looked on in fascination as she listened to her husband speak words in a language she'd never heard; but she did not understand what he was doing or why he was talking.
Arturo tried again: "May Day, May Day. Can anyone hear me? Over." Then, to his gret surprise there came a crackling voice in response! Meemai almost fainted when she heard a voice coming out of the thing with all the lights. She grabbed hold of Turo's arm. He was aware that something was happening with her, but in his own excitement he simply squeezed her hand and spoke into the microphone. "Having difficulty receiving you. Standby while I adjust the frequency, over." He turned the tuning knob both to the left and to the right until he could hear only the white sound of radio,. Arturo spoke once more: "Frequency has been adjusted. Please transmit original message. Over."
Came the reply: "This is the Radio Net of the Second Military District. Who are you and where are you? Over."
Arturo's heart raced so quickly he could hardly speak and Meemai, having now heard most clearly the voice, was flabbergasted and she made to speak, but words failed her. She had come to expect things which flew in the sky and weapons of fire, cans of food and the like, but this--a voice without a body could only mean a god! How could this be?
The radio operator's clear voice was heard in the echoing chamber of the tank. Lokwa was the first to stick his head in. "Who is speaking?" he asked most curiously. He was just in time to hear Arturo speak into the mike: "Please summon the officer of the day; it is imperative my message reach my embassy and my employer, forthwith. Over."
"The OD is standing by. Over." said the radio operator into the mike and then, off the air, turning to Captain Belisario Loran, "This is coming over a Jaguar Regiment frequency, sir."
"That's most interesting, seeing that they are all returned to their barracks. While I'm talking, put in a call to the battalion commander of the First Battalion. They've just returned from an operation and he might be able to help."
"Yes Captain," said Corporal Jose Felix, who was sure something big was in the making.
Arturo spoke: "With whom am I speaking? Over."
"This is Captain Loran, Officer of the Day, at your service. And with whom am I speaking? Over."
Suddenly Arturo was overcome with emotion. The voice, oh, how comforting was that cultured Spanish tone, a link to his rescue. Meemai saw him shaking and crying and the others, who had one by one gathered around him heard and saw him, commiserated with him and tears came to their eyes, for they could sense most acutely, their friend's overwrought spirit. Arturo was feeling release from pain, loneliness and suffering, thus his emotion. He wiped his eyes and drank some water which Tumela had fetched. Clearing his throat he pushed the "talk" button.
"It's good to hear your voice. My name is Arturo Fortebraccio. I'm the lone survivor of the Lopez-Cavalli surveying party. I have been in the jungle for months. I am presently in the company of some Indians. We came across this disabled tank and I took a chance and tried the radio. You need to contact the American Embassy and the Lopez-Cavalli Petroleum and Minerals Incorporated--talk to Sergio Bustamante--tell him I'm alive and to call my mother in California and tell her I'm alive--and send me a rescue party. Over."
Captain Loran was dumbfounded; and it was a long time before Belisario spoke. Corporal Felix was equally astounded and waited for more. He had called the battalion commander who said he would come directly to district headquarters.
However strange, what he'd just heard, Captain Loran remembered his duty and spoke to Arturo: "What is your location? Over."
"I don't know. All I can say is that we're in a dried river bed--a wide one and I imagine a long one--and that's where this tank is. Over."
"I have reason to believe you are somewhere on the Guaneroco Dried River. Be thankful it is not the rainy season--that's when that dried river becomes rather flooded. How is your health? Over."
"My health is good. Where does this riverbed lead to? Over."
"The river twists and turns for about a hundred miles where there is a railhead. Over."
"Can you send a helicopter to pick us up? Over."
"I have no authority to say anything. You will be rescued, be assured. Over."
Arturo smiled. He would be rescued. How re-assuring were those words.
The First Battalion's commander strode into the district's communications center and was directed to Captain Loran, whom he knew casually.
"What's up, Captain. Your message sounded urgent," said the colonel of the Jaguars.
Captain Loran wasted no time in relating the receipt of the distress call and his subsequent conversation with a certain Arturo Fortebraccio, "Moreover, he is calling in on a Jaguar frequency from an abandoned tank. Do you know where this man might be calling from, sir?"
"Of course. My tank commander had to leave one of our vehicles behind because of a broken tread. And you say he's described the Guaneroco--well, Captain, that is where the tank was left. Let me speak to him."
Colonel Bernardo spoke into the microphone. "This is Colonel Bernardo. Go to the front of the tank and call back the numbers and letters on the left-hand side. I believe we will be able to pin point your position by the tank's identification number. Over."
"I'll be rigth back. Over." said Arturo, who turned on the flashhlight and made his way out of the tank. The light's beam made "lBJAG607" stand out sharply. He committed the designation to memory and quickly made his way back to the radio and he repeated the designation to Colonel Bernardo
The colonel knew immediately the number was his tank which had been abandoned. But he had been a soldier, a guerilla fighter, for a long time and he was not going to take any chances. Some guerillas might have stumbled upon tank 607 and were up to no good--then again--this Fortebraccio might be telling the truth.
"It's our tank, Captain. What remains now is to confirm his identity. I suggest we first inform the district commander and let him make inquiry to the American Embassy and to that oil company. We were going to send out a repair party in a few days; this might speed up things. You say he wants a rescue helicopter? He just might get his wish, poor man--if he's not a guerilla, then he needs to be rescued immediately. Don't you agree, Captain?"
"Without a doubt, sir. I will call General Berger immediately." He picked up the microphone and spoke: "This is Captain Loran. We must verify what you claim. I will need some additional information. Date and place of birth, mother's maiden name and so on. Over."
"Anything, anything--only get me out of here as soon as possible. Over."
Arturo answered what questions were asked of him. And then he asked for instructions on how to start the engine so he could charge the battery. Colonel Bernardo was a bit reluctant, but he so instructed the anxious Arturo, who with the flashlight, went through the motions of the starting procedures as they were being addressed to him.
"There's not much else I can do, Mister Fortebraccio. I suggest we cease transmission and come back on the air for a communictions check in the morning. Have you a watch? Over."
The very idea of a timepiece was funny, and Arturo laughed. He had to compose himself before he responded. "No. I've no watch; but I'll call you about dawn--that's the best timepiece I have. Please call Sergio Bustamante--it's important he know I'm alive and well. Until dawn, then. Out."
With a shaking hand he turned the power switch off and gave a sigh, then a shout! of joy. "I wish I had some wine to celebrate with," he said outloud. Meemai asked, "husband, what has been going on? Are the voices we heard the voices of gods?" She was most serious.
Arturo heard her question and the seriousness of the question made the situation absurd and his more natural response would be to have had a good laugh at the absurdity, but his proximity to her tender spirit precluded such a response to her seriousness and, instead, he said, "No, not gods, but people much like me whose voices were being carried by lightning and the thing with all the little lights is able to hear the voice which is borne on the lightning," he said confidently.
And Meemai responded with great surprise: "But husband, the evening sky is clear and there has been no lightning."
This time Arturo smiled. "How am I to answer you, curious woman? Ha!" and he reached out his arms and pulled her close to him. He nuzzled her hair and loved her for her ingenuousness. "In due time everything will be made clear; don't worry so much about the things of my world; they are not so stange and can be helpful. Slowly, slowly--all of you must go slowly." He released her and addressed everyone: "Don't be so struck by what you see or hear in my world--it will all, too soon, become familiar and you may long for your forest home," he dropped his voice and turned his head toward Meemai and tried to imagine sitting with her in a swank restaurant in the capital. "Tomorrow, at dawn, I will talk to my people again," added Arturo, "and now I'm hungry," he declared and Meemai made ready some food.
"Extraordinary, extraordinary!" shouted Sergio Bustamante into the telephone. "Incredible! Yes, yes, he is authentic--I know his mother and that's her correct address and maiden name and, yes, he has a brother named Alex. I'm thrilled! We thought they had all perished. The air force sent out search planes, but nothing was ever spotted. But now this. Why it's nothing short of a miracle! Look, I'm going to fly up and talk to Arturo myself. I can be there in about three hours if I use our corporate jet" said Project Director of the Minuanua Exploration Project of the Lopez-Cavalli Petroleum and Minerals corporation, the largest corporation of its kind in the entire country. "I'll call his mother, then, be on my way. Would you be kind enough to send a car to the airport to pick me up, General."
"Of course. Everything will be taken care of," said General Berger.
Arturo sat next to Omeru; each man had his arm on the shoulder of the other; they were speaking in low tones about things close to their hearts. Omeru was saying, "Your child will be born in your world, therefore, it will belong by birth to your world, but its spirit--half of it comes from the forest, and so your child, sometime in its life, will have a longing to return to its roots--but the other half of its spirit will want to remain in your world; so there will be a lot of struggle for your offspring; but because I have come to know you so well, Turo, I know your child will have a good life. I do not know if I shall live long enough to know all of your world."
"Don't say that, Omeru, who is like a father to me. You will live a long time and be as a grandfather to my child."
"Thank you, Turo, who is like a son to me, but sometimes a man knows something, that is all I will say. Perhaps one day you will say similar words to someone. Life is thus; I would not have it any other way. We must all die some day, why should we not be able to discuss death? That is part of life. Do you people believe in this manner?'
"There are many who would be in complete agreement with you--but there would also be just as many who do not wish to think or speak of death."
Omeru scratched the back of his neck and pulled back one side of his mouth and closed one eye, all done to demonstrate his very deliberate thinking. "I think," he said, "there are too many different ideas among your people; there must be much fighting among yourselves, yes, I believe that is why your poeple have so many warrors and these big monsters for fighting. Many times I am afraid for us all--even you,Turo. You have been away for a long time. Ask yourself: Are you the same man now as you were since you fell from the sky? I don't think so. Eventually, we will reach your people, and for a while you will be happy; but one morning you will wake up and wish you were among the kimores."
Arturo reflected on the sage words uttered with such guilelessness. Arturo had come to know that Omeru was not one to mince words, and when he did speak it was always after due reflection.
Gradually each slept except Arturo who paced up and down. Try as he had, sleep would not come. Meemai, who tried to stay awake and keep her Turo company during his restlessness, also fell asleep.
Arturo looked up at the stars and the moon; under this bejeweled vault he felt so fortunate to have found the tank, it was almost as if the tread had been broken just so he would have use of a radio. "No. I'm becoming as superstitious as Omeru," he said in a soft voice. If all went well, he would be back in a familiar ambiance in a couple of days. How he longed for the amenities he'd done without; but he had to admit that in spite of what he had gone through, he was in good health, his thoughts were clear, he'd learned many things and had done and seen many things, none of which had harmed him; he'd even learned another language and now had Meemai, whom he loved dearly. But most of all he was thankful that he was still alive.
Back and forth he walked waiting for dawn which seemed never to come. He closed his eyes and his keen hearing could hear all the night sounds--including the snores and breathing of the sleepers; the night was also charged with subtle sounds which were lost by too heavy a breath or an animal's call. The serenity of the nights had come to be precious for him and of the things metropolitan life would offer him, it could never offer the glowing vault of heaven and the peace of the night.
The moon began to dip in the horizon, General Berger greeted Sergio Bustamante and guided him to his waiting car with its military chauffeur. The two men were comfortable together and although they had never met, they had several friends in common. "To the communications center, Jorge," said the general to his driver.
"What a stroke of luck one of your tanks broke down and he was able to use its radio. I called his mother in California--you can imagine her joy. I'm still in shock--so is my wife. We were all convinced the surveying party was gone to a man."
"Well, Mister Bustamante," replied General Berger, "As we now all know there was one who did survive and I'll never understand how. If he had to walk across Minuanua, he is a brave man indeed. I look forward to meeting him. Ah, here we are." The general turned his head to the east; dawn was just breaking and the driver slowed, then stopped.
Driven by anticipation and without thinking, Arturo climbed into the driver's seat, made certain the gears were in neutral, then went through the starting procedure to start the engine to charge the batteries, With little trouble, the engine caught and with a surge of joy, he depresed the accelerator almost to the floor. The roar of the diesel engine frightened everyone awake.
Kokora picked up little Turo and ran away from the noise. Everyone was taken aback. Lokwa put aside his fear however, and mounted the tank and stuck his head inside the turret. "Turo! What did you do? Everyone is so afraid. Can you stop the noise?"
Half smiling, half concerned Arturo stuck his head out of the hatch and called out, "Don't be frightened! No harm will come to you!" he shouted above the roar.
Omeru called for calm. He himself was a bit upset, but he was starting to accept the strangeness of Turo's world.
They stood close together by the fire. Arturo was talking to them, trying to explain; but his lexplanation of charging a battery, he felt, was hopelessly lacking for them; so he gave up. "I go to talk once again with my people. Won't you also come?" he invited.
The engine ran for a good half hour or so. Lokwa, the most curious, was allowed to depress the accelerator much to his great delight. Arturo let Meemai turn the switch to stop the engine. She was nervous, but she did it. The quiet was almost stunning after the great noise and she did not fully understand what an awful noise the engine had made until it stopped and the blessed sounds and silence of nature prevailed once again. And then Arturo turned on the radio.
There were a few screetches and the crispy sound of static, but adjusting the tuning dial brought the radio into frequency.
"This is Arturo Fortebraccio calling the Second Military District. Over."
Sergio heard Arturo's voice and was instantly overcome with emotionm, for he had mourned him, as he had the others in the ill-fated surveying party. But there was something different about his voice, a freshness or an innocence, he knew not what to call it--but there was something different about his old friend's voice and it was good to his ears.
"This is the Second Military District Commander, General Berger--good morning, Mistor Fortebraccio, we've contacted your embassy and we will make all the necessary arrangements for your rescue. But first let me pass the microphone to a friend of yours. Over."
"Arturo! Arturo! This is Sergio! How are you. Everyone thought you were dead. Can it really be you?" and he burst into tears of joy.
"Sergio! I can't believe it. I'm so...so happy. I can barely talk..." and his voice trailed off and he also cried for the sheer joy of hearing his old friend's voice.
"Arturo," continued Sergio, "I called your mother and told her you were alive and well. She sends her love and her highest hope is to be re-united with you."
He heard the message, heard the words of his mother whom he'd often thought he would never see again. Arturo breathed deeply through his nostrils, recomposed himeself and spoke: "Sergio, forgive me, I was so moved I couldn't speak. I'm so happy! to hear your voice. Call my mother again to say you've actually spoken to me. Sergio--I could talk for hours, but le me speak to the general. I want to get out of here. Oh,. tell my mother I'm married and that she will be a grandmother--don't ask me to explain further. I'll tell you everything when we meet. Over."
"This is General Berger. Please be patient. Plans are now being made to airlift you out. I will send a helicopter with a repair party on board,. They will be left to repair the tank and drive it out and you and your party can fly back out with the helicopter. I believe we can have you back in say, twenty-four hours at the most. Are you in desperate need of anything? Over"
"The only desperate need is rescue, general, What time is it? Over."
"It is now 0648 hours. Over."
Arturo made a quick calculation: the rescue helicopter then would be arriving sometime tomorrow in the late afternoon. "Can Sergio be on the rescue helicopter, General? Over."
There was a brief pause while the general spoke to Bustamante. "Of course I'll volunteer, General. Let me speak to him again. Arturo--I'll be on that helicopter--you can dpend on it."
"There is one thing more. Please contact the local Franciscans and tell them that their Father Pio Giuliacci is dead--I buried him myself and that I have some of his personal effects. Over."
So there it was, the rescue in preparation. And afterwards, when the radio was silent, Arturo explained that tomorrow one of the birds with men inside would come to take them away. There was nothing left to do except wait. Arturo excused himself and went off to be alone. He found a high flat rock and sat leaning his back against it,. The burden of walking was over, the burden of hunting and gathering was over, the burden of combating insects with smoke and mud were over; the burden of isolation and hunger were over. But then it occured to him there was nothing to prevent the rescue helicopter from cashing, too. "No!" he said, "I'll get out of here in one piece."
For a long time he sat reflecting on his time in the forest and his future, now intertwined with Meemai. In an odd sort of way he was sad he was leaving his forest life, for there had been times when he was at peace within and in harmony with everything in ways he could never have been in his other world world even under the best of circumstances. He was different but in what way he could not say, yet deep in his heart he knew he was different.
Far off in the distance Emsa saw a black dot in the sky, then he heard something. "Look!" he shouted, as he pointed with an outstretched arm. Intuitively they all knew it was the bird with men in it, coming to take them away. Arturo scrambled to the top of the tank and waved his arms. Thudda, thudda, thudda, came the sound of the flying machine. Closer and closer; now it was directly in front and the wind of the rotors blew dust and gravel in all directions. It hovered for a few seconds, then landed about thirty feet away. A man jumped out: It was Sergio. Arturo saw him and, jumping down from the tank he ran to meet his old friend. They embraced amid tears and shouts of joyous re-union and Arturo knew his ordeal was over.
Among the crew was a photograpoher sent by General Berger to record the rescue operation. He continuously snapped pictures from the moment he sportted Arturo from the air standing on the tank while the helicopter was still airborne. As soon as Arturo regained his composure and he was presenting Meemai and the others to Sergio and a Colonel Flores, Geenral Berger's emissary, Arturo became aware of incessant click, click click of the automatic 35mm camera which he found annoying. "You," he called out to the photographer, "please stop your picture taking; you're making me nervous."
The young soldier-photographer stopped and a hush descended on the crowd of rescuers and the rescused. Col. Flores settled the matter easily enough. "That will be enough, Private," he said to the photographer.
"Yes, sir," answered the photographer and he stepped out of the group and took pictures of the tank and the surrounding area not often visited by anyone.
Sergio looked at Meemai with aide-eyed amazement: She was pretty, well-formed, but she was a savage--obviously unlettered, probably animistic and superstitious. That was his immediate reaction; but then their eyes met and she spoke to him in her language a few words of greetings; and in those eyes and in that voice he sensed a gentleness he'd not experienced before,. In fact, by the time he met all of Alrturo's "family," as Arturo himself had called them, he was deeply impressed by their reserve and gentleness. They were children of the forest, as he saw them, and now they were part of a world which would belie everything they held near and dear or sacred. He saw them as innocents at the threshhold ofthe corruption of their gentle spirits. He embraced each member, held the baby, Turo, and gave the infant a loving avuncular kiss.
The repair crew unloaded its tools, spare parts, arms, fuel and field gear. "There is no reason to stay here any longer than we have to, so when you are ready to leave, sir, just say so, said Colonel Flores to Arturo.
Leave? At my say so? These words were tiny shock waves to Arturo's ears. "I can go any time?" he said outloud to no one in particular.
"Yes--of course--right now if you wish," rejoined Colonel Flores, who looked at Arturo oddly. There was something almost primitive about this man, observed the cultured and sophisticated staff officer, just come from his cushy administrative position. Also, he was a bit of a snob and an elitist, and the idea that a civilized man would take an Indian woman for a wife was beyond him. Nevertheless, he was having a good break from his usual, monotonously routine desk job. Today he was clad in field dress and carried a side arm and felt every inch a soldier and of course, a diplomat and a gentleman, too.
Arturo called his people together and spoke to them:--
"We can leave at any time; the thing which flies will take us; I need but say the word and up it will go. You, Emsa, I know your heart is in the forest..." Emsa cut him off.
"Turo, I go with my family. I am afraid of the thing which flies, but, yes, I will go on,. There is no more to be said in this matter."
"Then there is nothing more for me to say except gather your things and follow me."
For a long time they stood in silence with their eyes cast down not moving. They shared a common fear of leaving the land, the spirits and their gods and genius loci, their ancestral home, and leaving was frightening. The women were crying openly, but Omeru said something very curtly and they ceased their crying.
Omeru raised his eyes and looked at Arturo. "We are ready. Come, pick up your bags," he said to the women.
At the door of the big helicopter each of the unsure forest people hesitated, but once on board they settled onto a seat. Arturo went to each one and showed each how to buckle the safety belt, all, that is, except Lokwa, whom Arturo saw was very quick to learn and adapt to new ways; in one way his quickness would be an asset, but,. on the other hand, it might prove detrimental, Arturo would have to keep an eye on this eager young man suddenly cast into a seemingly magical world.
With a perfect lift off, the helicopter hurled itself into the air, and when the poor frightened lindians realized they were airborne, their fright intensified. Kokora kept insisting the baby would not have enough air. Kokori tried to calm her, but she was petrified of the altitude and was convinced they would all perish!
Arturo spoke to her; but no matter what he said Kokora's fear was turning to panic. Meemai unbuckled her safety belt and stepped over to Kokora, and, raising her hand gave Kokora a sharp slap on her shoulder. "You will sour your milk; the baby will live, we shall all live. Do not let your fear destroy you. Look at little Turo--he smiles while his mother laments! Be calm, little mother."
Wide-eyed Kokora stared at Meemai and listened attentively; and when she'd finished speaking Kokora was calmed and she uttered meekly, "Yes, sister," and Meemai returned to her seat.
A thermos of sweetened coffee with milk was broken out; hot steaming cups of coffee served in plastic cups were poured out and passed around as well as crunchy French rools.
"We might as well have a snack, we've got a few hours of flight time before we reach our refueling stop; and while we gas up we can have dinner--why you can even avail yourself of a shower and, I'm sure, we can find a razor for you," said Colonel Flores most cordially, as he passed a coffee and a roll to Arturo, but not to Meemai who was closer. This did not go unnoticed by Arturo who suddenly did not like this too suave Colonel Flores. Arturo gave his coffee and roll to Meemai, and as she reached out for them Arturo realized that Flores had purposely avoided serving Meemai. For a moment he was puzzled, but his puzzlement was not long lasting, for he clearly understood that the colonel was a bigot, not exactly the kind of man with whom Arturo would want to spend time with, socially or otherwise. After months in the forest, having been both hunter and the hunted, he had no worry about the obsequiously cunning bureaucrat-soldier, as personified by Colonel Flores; but now he saw, or resaw the danger of such a beast. His re-introduction to the world he'd missed and had longed for was not endearing.
Sergio and Arturo talked and talked as if trying to relate to one another everything which had happened since they'd last seen each other. Sergio found Arturo's story of the plane crash and his having plummetedg to the earth incredible.
"How you survived is only a miracle," said Sergio.
"And the anthill," added Arturo, "otherwise I would have died. And now I must tell you, Ugo lived for a while--but he went too. They are all probably bones by now--the ants work very quickly," he said, matter-of-factly, in spite of his once gruesome memory of the ants marching over Ugo's corpse.
Sergio winced. "Oof. Please," he said, holding up a hand as if to stop Arturo, "spare me the details. Ugo was a good friend, a good friend..." Sergio's voice faded and he hung his head.
"I'll make a full rport," said Arturo, and, to break the pall of sadness he asked, "By the way, will I get paid for my time in the forest? Ha, ha, ha, ha!" His laughter was spontaneous, almost ironic. He'd gone without money for such a long time that to be back in a system which was predicated on money as a means to sustain, continue and evaluate social life was laughable. Indeed, he had changed and he knew how.
Everyone in the small party was happy to walk on land again.
The small garrison where they were stopping for fuel was very curious about the white man and the group of Indians. Colonel Flores, who had been duly met by the garrison commander followed the commander to the officer's mess.
"Misters Fortebraccio and Bustamante will eat with us," said the garrison commander to Flores, "and the others can go to the enlisted mess." He said this naturally, casually, in a common tone, a tone one would use as if commenting on the mundane things of daily life, instead of determining, smugly, the disposition of human beings.
At the entrance to the officer's mess the commander slowed, turned, and with a slight bow and a gentlemanly gesture, invited Colonel Flores, Sergio and Arturo to enter.
Since deplaning, Omeru and the others stayed grouped around Arturo, surrendering themselves to him for they trusted him in this confusing and curious setting. Because they were clustered around him, there was a logjam of people at the entrance because Kokori, Ansa and Omeru tried to enter as close to Arturo as possible; and as they did the garrison commander was jostled from his socially correct posture and pushed to the side with the rush of those just as eager to follow. Once inside they stood dazzled by the bright electric lighting and the table set with dishes, glasses, napkins and silverware.
The garrison commander stood just inside the entrance. He was at a loss as to what he could do to prevent--as he saw them--these barbaric and dirty Indians from eating at his table. With the lifting of eyebrows and grimaces and a shrug of his shoulders, he looked at Colonel Flores (who had an inkling of the commander's state of mind by the gestures and look of needing help). But Flores, having more of an unctuously, diplomatic demeanor when the occasion called for such, pursed his lips. made his eyes frown at the commander and shook his head, "No," and the commander, not wanting to lose favor or jeapordize his (further) career, acquiesced to the authority of Flores, and even scolded the servants for not having set enough places.
But there was no need for more bigotry, for Arturo sizing up the situation of a table formally set and the problems such a setting would cause for Meemai and the others, graciously asked that they be excused from the sit down repast and be allowed to eat what food they had in their carrying bags and eat it out under the heavens where he and the others would be more comfortable--but he did ask that milk and fresh fruit be brought to them. Turning to his Indian family he said: "This is the place where food is eaten; but I think it is better for now that we eat elsewhere; it will be easier. I don't even feel comfortable here," he said with a jacose air, wherewith they withdrew without question and followed Arturo back outside where they sat down and ate what food they had while fruit and milk and chocolate were served to them by the officers's club servants. This pleased the commander, but he felt, somehow robbed of his authority and, because he was of small mind, took a disliking to Arturo and his savage companions. He saw Arturo as a traitor to his race.
The commander's stomach, nonetheless, growled for food; and like a good host, urged his guests to sit and he called to the servants to serve.
Sergio, with many apologies excused himself from the dinner and went to join Arturo and the others. Frankly, he felt sorry for his friend, who after being away from the amenities of civilization for so long, preferred to eat outside and under the stars. Bustamante felt he had to stay close to Arturo and help ease him back into time and the world they once shared, rich with cultured things; sophisticated discourse, good restaurants with thick, white linen tableclothes, crystal glasses and eating with silver forks and knives--instead of one's hand as he saw Tumela and the rest doing. But Sergio, forced by genuine hunger even had to excuse himself from Arturo, and humbly returned to the garrison commander's table where he was served chilled white wine and black olives, while one of the soldier-servants cut thin slices of ham which were laid on a steaming mound of rich over which was poured a creamy gravy laden with mushrooms; a side dish of peas and bread and butter were served to Sergio. As he sate at his cvilized table with his civilized fork, knife and spoon, Kokora suckled little Turo while she herself sucked out the marrow from a piece of rodent bone which had been cooked at the tank.
The garrison commander, Colonel Flores, Sergio and some junior officers ate their food with gusto; Omeru and his family ate their food with gusto and without prejudice.
While the alimentary needs of all concerned were being met, a radio message was received at the garrison radio station from the President of the Republic, who was sending his personal greetings to Arturo upon being rescued and that the resources of the Republic were there to see to his needs and to hasten his anticipated arrival at the capital.
Sergio thought coffee for Arturo and the others would be in order; therefore, with grace and ease he hinted at such and the garrison commander, thinking it a good idea, ordered his majordomo to see to it that coffee and sweet cakes should be brought to them.
In due time the majordomo, a veteran of many years, organized coffee which he would serve in the general issue cups of the ranks. On a wheeled cart he sat the coffee urn, canned cream, sugar and a bowl of assorted butter coookies imported from Denmark. A package of cigarettes and matches were his own contribution. He was a kind man, this majordomo, and when he pushed his coffee cart to the exotic Indians and the eccentric American, he greeted them in a most friendly manner and immediately started up a conversation with Arturo while he graciously served each a piping hot cup of coffee and uncovered the cookies, then, intrigued by this motley group. he poured himself a coffee and joined them in friendly stares and a few questions he put to Omeru through Arturo. He passed around the cigarettes, but only Arturo accepted one. Arturo was pleased and he relaxed with his coffee and cigarette.
"This is excellent coffee," said Arturo.
"I am pleased, sir, that you like it. I made sure you and your companions got the best," he said with the simple pride of doing something which pleased both doer and recipient. "I think you have suffered a great deal, sir; but now you are back among friends and familiar sights. I'm sure you are the happiest man in the world today. Is that not so?" he said in his very natural, unobtrusive way.
Arturo couldn't help smiling. But he had to ask himself if he was truly happy. Admittedly, yes; but his happiness was a guarded one. Being back in the world again had its bright side, but he was no fool; he was being re-aculturated into the mean ways of civilizaton, too; he had been absent long enough for him to have let go of the petty things and the not so petty things and thoughts which complicate life; and he had done admirably without the greed, urge to power and control, bigotry and narrow intellects with which he was once again making contact. But the friendliness and graciousness of the kind majordomo reminded him also of the goodness in the world and the good people in the world who balanced the injustice of the world.
The table was cleared, the commander was pleased to the core with the dinner and the small talk with such high personages from the capital. He rose, suppressed a belch and patted his paunch and, in an unctuously gracious tone, invited his guests to the verandah where coffee and brandy would be served. Both Flores and Sergio rose and thanked the commander for the fine dinner. Flores started to follow the commander, but Sergio excused himself and went to Arturo. The commander sat in a comfortable chair while the kind majordomo poured coffee into bone china cups and the commander offered tobacco and brandy. And as he poured he asked outloud, in a nonchalant way, "Aren't they a sad looking lot, and that old man, he's positively hideous. Wouldn't you say so?"
Colonel Flores took up the opening to add, "I must say he is a brute--they all are--just between us, sir, I'd sooner have left those savages where they belonged--except the surveyor, of course. But even he's a strange fellow. Can you imagine he objected to the photographer taking his picture?"
"No," rejoined the commander, adjusting his intonation to mean agreement. "I've run across Indians who think a photograph robs one of one's spirit. How stupid. But now, Colonel, if you will indulge me, may we speak of other matters? We are so isolated here, as you know--what new shows have you seen and did you see the interservice soccer finals, and who do you think will win the next election?" The two men fell into their small talk, and passed a most comfortable and pleasent evening together and the garrison commander was pleased because he was cultivating the friendship of a man in high places.
Sergio found the group easily enough, for several soldiers and local people were gathered around them drinking coffee and listening to Arturo relate his adventures. He saw Sergio and was relieved. "I came as soon as I was able to excuse myself from those two bombasts. I'm sorry about the dinner arrangements, I didn't..."
Arturo waved his hand and broke in, "Don't worry; we had our own dinner. But I'm not so pleased, frankly, at being here."
"Wait, wait and see. You'll get back to the city--people will be different, you'll be around civilians--these military people," he said, sotto voce, "are a bit crude and a bunch of stuffed shirts with too much starch. Come, take a walk with me, old friend, we haven't had a moment alone since we found you."
Arturo nodded his head and, turning to Meemai and the others he said, "I go with my friend to walk and talk in private. I will return soon." They all looked apprehensive and murmured, but Omeru and Meemai spoke words of consolation and their murmurings stopped.
The two friends smoked and talked and walked just outside the garrison's front gate. "What now, Arturo: Will you want your old job back--or another position? Anything you want, rest assured, you will have it."
Arturo stopped; the words he was hearing, he couldn't believe them. He turned to Sergio with a look of incredulity on his face. "Are you serious, my old job? Sergio, you can't be serious."
"But I am. Yes, after a few weeks or a month you should be in good enough spirits and I would think you would want to get back into a routine. All this wandering you've done it has upset your balance, but you'll change--why it's only natural."
Arturo shook his head. "No, Sergio, but thank you. I'm not sure what I'll be doing, but most certainly not my old job or any other position. I can't live in a big city with Meemai and the others. I've got to think of them. They must stay as close to nature as possible. Moreover, in a few months I'm going to be a father. Can you imagine Meemai in a modern hospital delivery room? I can't. No; I must find a home for them and, maybe, their home will also be our home--but I don't know--I've so much to sort out. Please don't misunderstand me--I'm grateful for all that has been done for me--believe that--but I'm not the old Arturo--and I may never be him. I think he died in the plane crash."
"But you can't be serious? I think you just need time, eh? This whole thing has been a great shock to your system. Don't make any decisions. Wait. Go to California, visit your family--go to Rome--ah, wouldn't that be a treat? Remember the good times we had there? Take your time, Arturo. No hurry."
"Thank you. You're only trying to help, I know that, Sergio. True, I've suffered a lot; but during my ordeal I had my eyes opened to a lot of things, things about myself, how I feel about the world and consciousness and the relationship between people, earth, the sky, sun, water, trees, plants and animals." His eyes grew wide as he talked and his hands pantomimed his words and a feeling of wondrous awe came over him as he realized how changed he was and he knew at last how he had been changed. He looked at Sergio intently. "I don't need my old world any more, Sergio. I don't needs trams or cafes and all the rest of it. I don't hate it or condemn it, it's just not for me. I've learned to live on roots and grubs and long marches, wild things and never knowing where our next meal was coming from or where we would sleep. I found a power about life I'd never known before, a dynamic which diminished everything I'd known. I longed for rescue, don't misunderstand me--but now that I'm back I understand a lot about myself I didn't even know when I was on my trek and I know I don't want to live the way I used to. Of course I';ll go to the States and see my family--but I've got a new family here--you saw them, I have to be responsible for them. There's no question about that in my mind, Sergio. Try to understand that for my sake. We're old friends."
Sergio wanted to argue many points with his friend, but saw clearly that in his present mood there would be no convincing him. He changed the subject. "As you wish, Arturo. Now tell me about this priest, FAther Giuliacci. How did you meet him?
The next morning, after breakfast, Sergio and the others resumed their journey. The helicopter's rotors spun and off it went, seeming to hurl itself into the sky like some uncommon bird from a surreal fantasy. Its next stop would be the capital's military airport, which, unbeknowst to anyone on the chopper, would be thronged with officials, civilian and military alike, the press and the electronic media would be there with their array of electronic gadgetry which would announce the party's arrival to the world; among the crowd would be the curiosity seekers, anxious to get a peek at the lone survivior and his Indian companions. Word of Arturo's SOS spread to every circle of the city.
The foreign wire services, as soon as they got word of the story sent it out to all their subscribers around the world; and people with computers and faxes, spoke and also sent their comments and reactions to this find, thereby adding to the buzzz along the electronic networks connected with narrow fiberoptic cables spreading from the source to London, Beijing, Ankara, Tokyo, Moscow, San Francisco, New York, Dallas and Chicago and at the bottom of the world in Auckland and Sydney and Canberra--they'd all been informed about Arturo and the others. And, for the moment, they filled and scooped the humdrum daily summaries, filling the morning newscasting in a hundred different languages with the exotic romance of one presumed dead yet alive; one who had returned after a long adventure caught the attention of the world--then, in most places, the day went on as usual.
At last the helicopter landed. Lokwa, in spite of his great curiosity about Arturo's world, was the last to alight from the giant bird, in fact, he was frightened by the mass of people on the tarmac. In front of him were more people than the poor youth had ever dreamed could be in one solid mass at one time. They were a flesh-jungle image of people to this primitive young man. That was the picture that his eye had enlarged: the crowd, swaying one way now another dressed in a variety of colors amazed Lokwa. And with the flash of colors came, too, the multitudes of smells which made his pristine nostrils quiver in dislike for the stench of so many. And in this crowd many were holding things which made a quick and very bright light, reminding him of the light flashed by the young warrior when the helicopter had first landed and changed his life forever. He'd not liked the quck light.
Everyone huddled around Arturo who stood dumbstruck by the television cameras and seemingly endlessness of picture taking! There was an irreverence here which he did not like, but knew he could do nothing about. He was back in his time and its conditions. He was home, the home he'd so longed for his many months on the trail. He was home.
Turning to Colonel Flores, he asked:--
"Colonel, is there some way to avoid that crowd?"
The Colonel turned and looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Avoid the crowd and the press?" He himself very much wanted to get his picture taken and to make a brief statement before the battery of t.v. cameras and radio microphones, for it would increase his importance and prestige. Why everyone in the capital would recognize him and begin to point him out. "But they must have waited several hours for us. We can't now disappoint them, can we?" he said confidently. "Come, just a few words to the press, sir. After all, you were considered dead for a long time--and, remember, it has been public funds which has paid for your rescue."
"What does that have to do with anything? Thank you, no; but you can go and be interviewed. I won't go and neither will they," he said, nodding his head toward the group.
"But consider..." Colonel Flores started to say, but Arturo cut him off, and, in a most assertive voice asked that a vehicle be brought to take them away. Colonel Flores was flustered. Sergio, overhearing the conversation, decided the matter. He'd seen General Berger in the front of the crowd. He ran to him.
"Welcome back, Mister Bustamante. What seems to be the reason for the delay?. We've been waiting a long time. Is there a problem?" he asked civilly, but strongly so.
"Yes, General--but a small one, I assure you. My firend objects to this crowd and would like a vehicle to take him and the others away. He does not wish to make a statement to the press--he guards his privacy--I know him; he's stubborn. Please, General, come with me; let him tell you himself. Please," he said coaxingly, trying to appease the general who was obviously annoyed..
General Berger shrugged his shoulders. "Very well, but I don't like this at all. The Army has gone to gret lengths to bring him and the others here. I hope he understands that."
"I assure you, General, he is more than gratefull for all that's been done, but he's concerned about his companions, one of whom, his wife, is pregnant. They are a primitive people and all of this is upsetting them greatly."
The general, an understanding man, did not want this unusual event to be marred. There was, afterall the honor and the prestige of the Army to uphold.
Colonel Flores saluted his general smartly and the general saluted back with a casual wave to his which bounced off his visored hat. He turned to Arturo and put out his hand. "Mister Fortebraccio, allow me to introduce myself: I am General Berger, Commanding Officer of the First Military District. On behalf of myself and the Army. Welcome home. I've heard good reports about you from Mister Bustamante. I'm honored to know you, sir." The general was sincere, his words rang true in Arturo's ears and he knew this man would help ease his family's arrival.
"These people, general, are upset," he said, indicating the small clan with a sweep of his arm. "The cameras, the crowd--they're not used to this and are in a mild state of shock. Moreover, I feel pressured and I don't feel well being exposed the way I am feeling just now. I need a few hours of adjustment. I don't wish to speak to the press now--later, of course--but not now."
General Berger threw up his hands and smiled. "Of course--and later we can have a formal presentation of you at a news conference called by my office. Would that be more agreeable to you and the others?"
Arturo smiled at the man's tact. "A most splendid idea," he said. "You are most kind, General. Thank you."
The general nodded.
"Colonel," he said, turning to Flores, "order a vehicle to take Mister Fortebraccio and his party to my headquar-ters."
"But sir, what about the press?" asked the Colonel, whose ego felt slightly deflated.
"I shall gladly make a statement of importance to the public explaining this sensitive matter of of guests. Now order the vehicle."
A military doctor examined Arturo and the other's in a large examination room at the military hospital; they took an x-ray of his hp and found nothing untoward there. The examining physician was impressed at everyone's good health.
"Sergio," asked Arturo, as they walked down the long corridor of the hospital and out to the military van, "where are we to stay?"
"That's all been taken care of--I've arranged that. You can stay with Marta and I, you know we have the guest house just behind, and I'm sure Omeru and the rest can bed down there and you and Meemai can have the gust room in the main house. I think we can handle so many guests."
"Perfect. I was going to ask for something similar--but you beat me to it, old firend. I guess you do know me, afterall," he said, as he put his arm around Sergio's shoulders. "I need to be away from this military environment. Have the driver take us to your place. I want to see Marta and to telephone California, too."
The next morning Meemai woke at her usual hour, awoke under the covers of the bed she and Arturo had shared their first night in his world. She thought a bed an odd thing, but, nevertheless, found it comfortable and she looked forward to sleeping in it another night. Her eyes stared up at the ceiling and moved to the walls and the things called "chairs." According to Arturo this room had many of the things people in his world needed, and she marveled at everything he showed her. But she knew something was missing, knew that a fire, the center of the home, was missing; that the immediate sight of trees and the sound of the wind and the smell of the earth were missing. What kind of people would want to live without such things so very close to one, she wondered?
Arturo stirred. She held her breath. Nothing should disturb him. Slowly she slipped out of the bed. The room was warm; she went to the window and looked out and saw the neatly trimmed grass, the orderly line of bordering flowers, polychromed and in full bloom and pleasing to her eye. She had not noticed them last night when she and Arturo, along with Sergio and Marta, whom she liked, walked the others through the back yard to the guest house. She marveled at the houses. They were beyond her keenest imagination, even though Pio, then Arturo had spoken of them many times. The two things which intrigued her the most were the little black thing with which people talked to other people, and the place where one went to relieve nature's call and to the area where one washed therein, too. Her bath and shower, hot or cold or lukewarm, as one would was a thrill for her. So many things, so much to learn.
She put on the robe Marta had given her; it was made from a soft green cloth, the finest which had every touched her body. She looked at herself in the mirror. At first sight she turned away. It was something she would have to get used to: Seeing her reflection so vividly. Meemai opened the downstairs door which led out to the garden. She stepped out and breathed deeply of the fresh morning air. "Ah, I'm so happy," she said to herself in a quiet, peaceful voice. She bent, and, caressing a cluster of flowers between her hands, she smelled them. The sweet redolence filled her with memories of the sweet flowers of her former forest home. She got up and went to the flowering bushes nearer the house; the flower was a deep red, almost like blood and the stems had thorns. She was seeing a domestic rose for the first time. Carefully she pulled one to her nose and sniffed and found it pleasant, so she sniffed again and again, drinking in the fragrance of this new-found treasure. "Ah, such a fragrance. Never have I smelled such a flower," she said out loud. She broke the stem, but it would not separate, so being careful not to cut her lips on any of the thorns, she used her teeth to sever the stem. A coupl of bites cut away the stem. She put the rose in her hair and smiled. She sat on the grass in quiet reverie.
Marta, Sergio's wife, woke earlier than she ever did and try as she might she could not get back to sleep. She therefore got out of bed and put on her robe; and as she walked across the room in front of the big windows of the second floor, she glanced out at the day and saw Meemai at the rose bush biting the stem. "Oh dear, she's taking one of my prize roses--and with her teeth." For a moment she was upset--even a little angry, but when she saw Meemai put the rose in her hair, then settle on the grass so gently and delicately, Marta couldn't help noticing how beautiful she made the rose look and how perfect was the combination of her black hair, the red rose and the green silk robe Meemai wore; and sitting on the grass as she was, the soft light of the morning and the green of the grass and of the robe made Marta feel as if the young woman had, somehow, grown out of the earth and now sat like a delicate work of natural art with a blood red rose, the center of this artly work.
Marta, being a painter, was struck by this pose. She wanted her sketch pad and charcoal pencils. But she did not want to leave this precious scene; and so she stood staring down letting the image and the colors engrave themselves into her eye for a later transfer, perhaps, to canvas. For a long time Meemai sat in the same position and Marta, after a while, felt she was intruding; however, just as she was about to step back, Meemai looked up, her sharp eyes saw Marta; she waved and Marta waved back almost embarrassed.
For a few seconds Meemai was taken aback by the sudden sight of Marta, but recovering very quickly, she gave Marta a broad, friendly smile and with a graceful wave she beckoned her to come down. Meemai patted the grass next to her, then pointed to Marta and waved to her to come down. Marta shook her head in agreement.
"Good morning, Meemai," said Marta, graciously, as she walked across the grass. Meemai smiled, "Hello," she answered in English, which startled Marta to hear English from this primitive woman's lips. Marta sat, arranged her robe and waited in silence with Meemai, wondering what she would say to her. But Meemai said nothing, for she just looked at Marta admiringly, studying the way her hair was cut short and how delicately white was her skin and how smooth were her hands and how lovely were the rings on her fingers.
The stillness of the serene morning, the words unspoken, the sitting close together inactive, with only facial expressions and eye movements made Marta just a little nervous:--afterall, Marta thought to herself that she was a sophisticated woman who had studied philosophy and painting, and was a witty speaker, clever in an artful way, one who could hold herself intellectually. She was thinking that in essensce she was a pretty good example of the archetype of a developed woman of her time, her class and her natural inclination; yet beside this primitive woman with the stolen rose in her hair--she felt almost tipid; all her values education, conventions and conceits would be lost on Meemai, for Marta understood clearly that she and Meemai were not so much linguistically and culturally different, as they were by being, also, separated by centuries and psyches, all obviously so to her.
Aside from shared feminimity, what did they (after all) have in common? The differences notwithstanding, Marta's sharp painter's eyes caught the light around Meemai and etched her three quarter profile in her mind and saw, all at once, a beauty in her worthy of Botticelli's delicate hand, in his prime of painting dancing graces and goddesses rising up out of the sea. The tension she'd been feeling momentarily was released with the realization of having grasped the clarity of her artistic inspiration which was expressed with a prolonged sigh from deep within her.
"You are happy, yes?" said Meemai, sensing something good in the woman's expiration.
Marta raised her eyebrows in surprise not only at (again) Meemai's English, but at her ability to have heard Marta's sentiment with only a push of air. Last night Meemai had not spoken any language other than her own and always Arturo as her interpreter.
"Did Arturo teach you English?" she asked in English.
"Yes, English and some little Italian, same speak Pio."
"Amazing," thought Marta. She gained an instant admiration for this forest woman whom Arturo had taken as his wife, a strangely beautiful woman, almost guiless, but from Arturo's recounting of his meeting up with Meemai and Pio and, later, Kwa-a, Marta knew this woman was no innocent--yet she was: she had only been protected from the vicissitudes of modern life--but not from the human condition. There was something refreshing and spirited about Meemai, for never in all the years Marta and Sergio had lived in this house had she sat outside so early in the morning and so peacefully--and she was enjoying it and was appreciative that Meemai's habit was a boon to Marta.
A bird sang and Marta was intent on listening to its song. So, slosing her eyes, she concentrated on the almost crisp, but dulcet bird call-song which was soon answered by another. Gradually she began to see in her mind's eye a surreal painting of a slender, polychrome, irridescent bird with a human face with a single rose in its hair. She half opened her eyes and looked again at Meemia who was now standing and stretching her larms in a lazy morning stretch and Marta followed this stretch with her eyes and saw Meemai as that bird of her mind's eye, raising its wings, prepara-tory to flight to some mythical land.
Marta opened her eyes wider and wider as if in half surprise and half delight and all at once jumped up. "Excuse me, Meemai--I must go!" Wherewith, she turned and, at a fast pace, walked to her studio to sketch the image which stood out so clearly in her mind.
Meemai was left agasp at her most sudden and unexpected departure. "What did I do that she left, almost running? I must have offended her," said Meemai to herself in her own language. "I must speak to Turo and ask him to tell her I'm sorry." she added and for a few minutes her joy left her.
Coming out of the guest house Omeru saw Meemai on the grass and walked to her. They exchanged greetings; she was glad to see him. He squatted down next to her and was silent for a long, reflective time. She had been around Omeru long enough to know and understand his ways so she did nothing to disturb his thoughts.
After a while he spoke: "Daughter, when I got up this morning I was prepared to walk out into the bush to relieve myself; but then I remembered where I was and what Turo had said about such things, so I went to that place and did as we men had been instructed. But daughter, somehow it does not seem natural, not correct, for a man to relieve himself in such a place. I made my ablutions, but they did not have any warmth: The water came, it went. There was nothing to remind one of what one had done. There are certain things a man must see and feel. Here there are so many things I cannot see and cannot feel. But since I came here freely, I will stay and try not to complain so much. But I do not know how long I can live such a life. We have flown! We have traveled in strange, round-legged things which took us over the ground very fast. How do these people think? What kind of world have they created? I am bewildered by all of this," he said, taking his arm and flinging it out (almost in disgust) at his unusual, unnatural surroundings. "It has been passed down to us through the ages that people should be humble and close to the earth. But Turo's world, I have come to see, in a very short time, is arrogant."
Meemai arched her eyebrows at the words just uttered. For almost overnight she had become enamored of Turo's world and the relief it gave from drudgery; she'd heard of its wonders from Pio, then Arturo, and at the time of their first encounter with civilization she was afraid; but after the helicopter flight she began to see that world slowly come to life, slowly begin to come into sharp focus of stimulating and intriguing devices and things and a seeming condensation of time and space which continued to take her breath away at the newness of things and the delight of it all-- even its small fears
"Father," she said, "what you say is true, there seem to be things and actions unnatural not correct, to us; but this world of Turo's is not all bad. Yes, we are not so close to the earth here, yet one can take a little piece of the earth, as Marta and Sergio have done, and turn it into a small and of greens and flowers. Look, they have even planted trees," she said, delightfully so, indicating to him with a broad smile, some nearby trees. "And see," she continued, pointing to the rose in her hair, then pulling it out from her hair, "this beautiful flower, unknown to me until now, is deep rich red and very sweet in the nose. This flower is cultivted by the poeple who live here. In the forest we had to cultivate kimores so we would not strve, here, one can cultivate flowers because there is a love of beauty for the eye and a good smell--and not only for the belly. People who do this live in Turo's world. I begin to like how they think about the world. Yet, I understand how you feel. And, yes, I too miss the closeness you describe. Is it not a woman's revered duty to maintain her home's fire? Yet here I cannot make and tend my fire as I ought. I mourn this, but I have to accept it, for the world where my fire duties belong is not where I am. I will cook as does Marta--but when I make the instant fire, I will utter my prayers--and that is how we must all survivie --or we must go back to the forest. I have also seen many bad things in our own village. Did not men fight and kill, raid? Men are no different here--but they are different than us. You are like a father to me and it is not out of disrespect that I have spoken thusly," she ended.
Omeru's initial response to her words was an immediate sense of hearing impertinence; but he listened; and as he listened, he let his own wisdom be impressed with hers. He admired her insight, even though he was not as accepting as she. "No, daughter, I do not think you spoke disresptfully. I have come to know you and there is no disrespect from you. Maybe because I am old...you, you and the others have your youth...in time all of you will be comfortable in your new ways...and I will die with the old ways."
He hung his head as if in acquiescence of his fate. The wind shifted and the smell of the fresh rose reached his sensitive nose; he reached out and took the stem between his fingers. "Ahi," he said between his teeth, "this beautiful flower you praise also has thorns. Does that not say something about the beauty and good things of this world, daughter?"
Meemai reflected for a moment. She looked at the rose and then to the bush from which it had been taken. She felt the softness of the robe on her body. She was thinking. She bent her head and smelled the rose deeply; and as she drank in its redolence, she put her thumb and finger on the stem and purposely squeezed two thorns. She increased the pressure and the sharp thorns broke her skin. Letting go, she held up her punctured and bleeding thumb and forefinger. Her rich red blood dropped and the drops fell onto the rose. "In the forest there are, also, many thorns; men use them to make traps to catch animals to put food in our bellies; the danger of the thorn is there, but it is put to good use. Can't we also use the thorns of this world to good use, Father?"
"Where do your words come from Daughter? You speak like an elder. I wonder if all of this flying has upset my head, and has done something to yours? You are not an ordinary woman. You humble me with your words. I never said that to any woman. Why should I? But a man must give respect to wisdom--no matter its source. I will try to use their thorns." So saying, Omeru took hold of the rose's thorns, and let them cut his fingers and he dripped blood on the rose as if in ritual, secret covenant with Meemai.
Marta was not at breakfast. She had left a note for Sergio explaining she was in her studio and did not wish to be disturbed. He understood that. This was not the first time she'd ensconed herself in her studio. He guessed she'd been overcome with some inspiration and was following through with it, by withdrawing, as she was wont to do, and to which he was accustomed.
He bade the cook to prepare breakfast, and the maid to lay the table for ten people, but he told her to put out large spoons for his guests since he had observed that they preferred them to forks and knives.
It was an unusual breakfast: The cook had prepared scrambled eggs and pieces of thinly sliced beef fried with onions and herbs. There was an almost Chinese quality to the dish. There was also a variety of fruit,small sausages and bread. Unusual as it may have seemed compared to their usual toast, jam, butter, it was, nonetheless, delicious and also appropriate for his visitors, he thought. "Arturo," he called out to his friend who was sitting at the patio table with the others drinking coffee, "breakfast is ready. Please invite your friends to the table. I'm sure they're hungry."
They all sat without ceremony. Sergio encouraged his guests through gestures to help themselves; but, hungry as they were, they all looked to Arturo to show them by his example how to eat. Sergio looked perplexed. "Is anything the matter? Is something wrong?" he asked of his old friend.
Arturo smiled. "Nothing wrong; I think I know what it is: they're waiting to see what I'll do." He took hold of the rice serving spoon and put two large dollops of hot, steaming rice onto his dish, then served himself meat and eggs right on top of the rice and with his spoon began to eat. They all followed his example.
Tumela first served Omeru, then Emsa, then herself. They all used their spoons effectively and they were soon lost to the food which they found quite tasty. Ansa smacked her lips at the combination of meat, rice and eggs; she found them all so exquisite. She was nost impressed by the seemingly endless supply of food in this world and it appeared to her that little or no labor went into getting it. She saw the source of the food in Sergio's house: A large white box which one opened and suddenly a light appeared and one needed only reach in and take what food one wanted. She was convinced in her own innocence that she could open that cold place and, if she looked closely enough, she could even find some of her favorite foods from the forest. Oh, she liked this new world; already she could see its convinience, saw it with such innocent eyes. There was so much she wanted to see in this world even though it frightened her.
Meemai noticed Marta's absence more than anyone else, and she was now even more certain her absence had something to do with their meeting, which had started off friendly enough, but turned into Marta's abrupt, and unexplained departure which continued to bother her. She still puzzled over the incident and knew she must speak to her Turo about this lest her sadness disturb the growing life force within her. She would broach the subject after eating, when Turo and Sergio would be more relaxed.
A last round of coffee was served, the last clatter of satisfied spoons licked clean were heard, satisfaction of a full belly beamed from every eye. They had not eaten such good food since their having left the fields. They spoke among themselves, sharing comments and were most thankful for the bounteous and tasty meal. Omeru asked Arturo to convey to Sergio many honorific thank yous, which Arturo did with aplumb.
The dishes were cleared away, Kokora took little Turo out to the patio and lay down on a padded lounge chair with the baby at her breast taking suck. She knew this baby woulds be strong because the good food she'd eaten would give her milk strength. She was satisfied and at ease; her belly was full as it had never been before. Their journey had been a long one, and she wanted to rest. And with that thought in mind, she drifted off into a light sleep with the baby sucking contentedly at his fount of life.
The moment was correct: Turo and Sergio also went to the patio to smoke. Meemai took an ashtray, as she had seen Marta do, and placed it on the table between the two men. She waited until they were settled, tugged at Arturo's sleeve. "I want you to interpret for me. I wish to apologize to Marta, through her husband," she said, with a repetent voice.
"Apologize?" he responded, rather surprised himself. "What for? What happened between you two women?"
"Husband, I do not know, for at first we were sitting very peacefully on the short grass and suddenly she just left. I do not know what I did to offend her that she would leave so quickly, but all at once she went into this house and she did not eat with us. She must be angry with me."
"No, no, Meemai, there must be another explanation. Let me explain this to Sergio." He turned to Sergio and told him what she had said.
Sergio listened and was as perplexed as Arturo and could not imagine such a thing. "Marta wouldn't run off like that at some offense--she's not like that; and her not being at breakfast has nothing to do with Meemai. Marta's in her studio either painting or drawing--something she had to do--her work is what's keeping her from us--not anything Meemai could have said. Tell her that, re-assure her and say that I will speak to Marta as soon as she decides to come out. Who knows? She may stay in the studio all day--all night. I have no way of knowing. Don't worry, Meemai," he said.
Arturo interpreted Sergio's response. She felt better, but did not understand how a wife could go away from her husband and not want to be disturbed because she had to make pictures. That did not seem reasonable at all, but she accepted the situation and looked forward to clearing this matter up.
Sergio was called to the phone, he spoke to General Berger's aide-de-camp who stated that the general sent his personal good wishes to all concerned and that, further, he had arranged for a press conference at Four P.M., and transportation to and from the Second Military District Headquarters would be provided by the command. He was a pleasant person, the aide; but Sergio told the pleasant officer that the matter was up to Mister Fortebraccio and would the officer have the kindness to hold so he could call him to the phone. Sergio told Arturo; Arturo spoke to the aide-de-camp; Arturo agreed immediately, his private reasoning being to get the press conference over and done with and to get on with their lives.
"We will pick you and your party up at Three," said the polite aide.
"Do you want all of us to go?"
"Of course, sir."
"And suppose the others don't want to go--after all, they are free citizens, wouldn't you agree, Colonel?" He remembered their treatment at their first stop over and he was determined that they would not be treated rudely again and it was up to him to be their advocate in a system alien to them.
"Of course, of course," replied the aide obsequiously, "but it is General Berger's wish that all who can do come, sir."
"I'll talk it over with them and call you back."
Hesitantly the aide agreed, but with a bit of trepidation.
Arturo gathered the clan together and explained that many people were curious about them and wanted to see them and photograph them, maybe even ask them questions.
No one really seemed interested in going at first except Meemai; and her decision enfluenced Lokwa, who was the most curious of them all; but his enthusiasm did not inspire the others. Omeru spoke for the rest of them: "We shall remain. The three of you go."
"Very well," spoke Arturo. He called the aide back. "There will be only myself, my wife and one other from my party, and, of course, Mister Bustamante."
"I will tell the general and I'm sure he will be pleased," responded the aide--not really believing what he'd just said.
Meemai wanted to wear the lovely green robe Marta had given her, but the maid, showing her a slip-over white dress with embroidery across the chest, helped change Meemai's mind. Arturo dressed in a borrowed polo shirt and light grey gabardine slacks, and for Lokwa, a pair of slacks with a shirt, his very first clothing from this new world.
When the car pulled up Marta was still in her studio. She heard the car, the voices, the opening and the closing of doors and the car leaving. She just blinked her eyes then continued with her work: A large canvas she had just started to paint; the bird image she'd seen with Meemai's face in the garden was now a charcoal sketch on a large rectangular canvas. All morning she'd worked in a frenzy with her dark pencils; and now, several worthwile hours later, she was ready with her pallet charged with newly squeezed colors and a new brush in hand to paint the exotic, surreal creature she carried in her mind's eye.
She would paint until her eyes burned and her hand tired and her belly hungry for food. She knew she was a bad hostess, but her artistic creation had to take precedence--that was the way she was.
The form was graceful, sensuous, the colors luminous, spreading out in singular splendor from head to toe. She made the wings half feathers, half human arms, but the face was all Meemai's, and she had captured her features of the morning perfectly.
Nothing went right (as far as Arturo was concerned). There were too many journalists, too many bright lights and the continuous flash, flash, flash of the still cameras unnerved him and he could tell that Lokwa and Meemai were uneasy. He gave a synopsis of the crash and his having fallen and his recovery and subsequent trek through the forest and the meeting up with Pio and Meemai; but he left out his battle with Kwa-a. He didn't think that was anyone's business but Meemai's and his. After his summary, however, the reporters started asking him personal questions which had nothing to do with his ordeal, which questions he avoided as best he could, but the reporters then asked him inane questions about what he ate and what did it feel like to be lost and not know which way to go. So stupid, so pointless. And the questions asked of Meemai and Lokwa had to do with their reactions to flying and automobiles and what was their response to electricity. He interpreted the questions and their simple answers: They liked everything.
At long last, the press conference ended. Nevertheles, they were hounded by the press and the paparazzi all the way to their waiting car, and followed. But the military driver was able to evade their pursuit.
On the way back to Sergio's house Arturo was quiet. He folded his arms across his chest and looked out the window trying to forget the recent conference; and he regretted he'd gone at all.
But now that it was over, he could consider his future: Whether to put the mask of his old life back on, or, to start a new one. Which? And it was to this that he gave his thoughts free rein. Meemai, through her acute intuition knew her husband was mulling over something important. She sat quietly and simply put her hand on his knee to show she was with him no matter what. Her gesture did not go unnoticed by him. She was so much a part of his future: He could make no decision without considering her, too. He put his hand on hers. He loved her so much. Their mutual tenderness was deep and rich. They fitted so well together, so well.
Back at the house the others bombarded Lokwa and Meemai with a hundred questions. They were a long time explaining the press conference. "...and Turo said that when night comes, we will be able to see ourselves on that thing which looks like a pale moon and in which people move and speak," said Lokwa with great awe, expressing his conception of television.
Marta, they were informed, had come out only to bathe quickly, eat a bowl of soup, and return to her studio, where she stood before her unfinished canvas. She would paint until she felt it was finished. That was her way: To use the inspiration while it was fresh, strong, vibrant, letting it travel to the point of the brush. The exotic creation took on a consciousness of its own with spatial identity, color, form and depth. Her canvas depected a flowering jungle, a tangle of vines and broad leaves; far off a lofty peak wrapped in surreal clouds. And between jungle and mountain loomed the human-faced bird of Marta's imagination. She tried to bring out the goodness and depth of mystery and innocence she'd seen in Meemai's eyes. It was the eyes, bright as new silver, which were the focal point of the portrait.
She stepped back for a moment scrutinizing her creation; she liked it and liked the subject. Marta felt a deep attachment to Meemai and wanted to help her, help educate and guide her in the ways of the new world. And to begin, she would give Meemai the painting as her gift to demonstrate her friendship, appreciation and protection.
The evening newscast of the one hour long press conference was given about two minutes of fragmented frames, switching back and forth with fractured, half answered questions. Meemai and Lokwa were confused. "What is wrong, Turo?" asked Lokwa, "Were we not under the bright lights a long time--or it seems we were, yet on the pale moon with people where we saw ourselves, it was but for a short time? How is this possible? We do not understand."
With his usual patience and clear language, Arturo did his best to explain the phenomenon of the condensation of time and events by the television broadcast industry. He of course, did not expalin the profit-driven media business to these innocents from the forest. They understood so very little; but they thanked him nonetheless, for his explanation.
Sergio arranged an outdoor barberque. The sight and smell of the meat cooking on the grill over a bed of coals made all in the small clan stop and squat at this very familiar sight. "They are like us in some ways," thought Omeru as he smelled the delicious smell of the meat, "but in so many other ways they are very different. We become hungry and they become hungry--but whence comes their meat? They are not hunters, yet the cold place is filled with meat. How different, yet the same. I cannot imagine ever really learning how to live as Turo and his people live."
Everyone, except Arturo, Meemai and Omeru, went to bed early. These three stayed at the table. Omeru had seen the charcoal and asked Meemai to stoke the fire, which she did. The three of them sat in silence for a long time, each staring deeply into the fire as they had done countless times when together in the forest and on their trek. The fire brought them together as it had in the field. Crickets chirped and added to the peace of the night. Omeru broke the silence
"Turo, I long for the forest and the open land. How long will we stay here? An old man needs to rest his bones in a familiar place."
Arturo heard the words and let them flow with the fire. He was a long time in answering, he wanted to be sure of what he would say.
"I have been thinking that I too wish to go away from this place, but not back from where we came, father. This is not my land. Far away, I have a friend who has a big piece of land. A long time ago he invited me to build a house on his land if I wanted."
"But I do not wish to go to a land far away, Turo."
"I know, my friend. You must go where your heart is and I must go where I think my heart is calling. I don't know. I'm not so sure of a lot of things. My world is just as strange to me as it is to you. Nevertheless, I will help you get back to the forest, you and the rest of your family--if they want to go. I think, however, Lokwa likes this life."
"Yes; I have noticed a change in him. But if he wishes to stay I will put up no obstacle."
"Be patient, my father, who is my friend," he said, giving Omeru high deference by his choice of words.
"You are a good man, Turo," he said. Omeru loved Arturo deeply in a way he could barely express. He was always a little startled when Turo would use the most formal and respectful of forms of speech when talking to him. It was more than any man could ask from a son, but even much more so when coming from this stranger who had become almost a forest person. Again he saw how close were the two worlds where age is honored, but also kept seeing how different they were. But was there no middle road of agreement?
"Yes, I will be patient and I know you will help us. Now I will go to sleep." He got up, and with a smile worthy of a prince saying good night to his subjects, he turned and made his way to the guest house.
Meemai put more charcoal on the fire. "Where is this far away land where you would build a house, my husband?"
"A long time ago, a friend of mine invited me to build a house on his land. It's in a pretty remote place. I've been thinking a lot about his offer. It is a peaceful land, hot and dry; not like the forest; and there are mountains and snow, fast, cold rivers and the sky is blue in the day and the stars are as bright as small suns at night."
"What will you do there, husband?"
"Do? I don't know. First build a house and wait for the baby. We will do that no matter where we settle. Does that suit you?" he said, reaching out and taking her around the waist. She liked that.
"I will go where my husband goes; it does not matter to me. A far away place is good enough for me--as long as you are there. I will miss Omeru's daughters. But I will be with you in that land and help you build our house--which must have a place where I can build a fire. Will you do that for me, husband?" She put her arm around his shoulder and put her head on his arm and let out a sigh of contentment.
"Yes, I will. I'll build you a beautiful fireplace."
They watched the embers peeking out under the white ash. She spoke sweet words of subtle encouragement to him and he responded to her hints...
At the Roman Catholic chancellory, Arturo spoke to the archbishop, who had received him with great anticipation, for the archbishop was curious to meet this man whose picture and story had been in the newspapers and on television. But, forthemore, he had knowledge of Father Pio who had disappeared without a trace almost two years before. And now the end of his days would be narrated by the stranger whose fame had apread all around the world, or so it seemed to the archbishop.
The two men talked privately for a long time, with much of that time Arturo relating to the archbishop his meeting up with Pio and, sadly recounting Pio's last hours.
Archbishop Sais knew Pio, they had been friends for a long time and he deeply respected the polyglot priest for his linguistic feats and dedication to the faith. He would be much missed and mourned.
Unzipping a canvass bag he'd carried with him to the meeting, Arturo removed its contents and placed Pio's simple effects in front of the archbishop: The inert watch, the breviary, the identity card, the now rusted pen knife and the bilingual dictionary and grammar which he had used and, when he could, had studied like a university student pouring over a course text. In fact, Arturo was most glib in this newly acquired, esoteric language.
The archbishop beamed when he read the title. "His mission was a success,: said the archbishop, as he opened the book. "He had heard of this people only by old rumors--but he found them. His devotion was always so complete. I'm sorry he met such an end. Nevertheless, I cannot thank you enough for your thoughtfulness in carrying his effects, especially the grammar text and dictionary. Now we can begin where he left off. This book will help our remote missions. Since you say you are fluent, I wonder if you would consider a temporary position at our mission village, a few hundred miles from here, where we train our priests in the local languages and dialects? It was Father Pio, by the way, who started our jungle language institute."
"Are you serious?"
"I assure you, Mister Fortebraccio, I am most serious. We will supply you with trnsportation, room and board, and a monthly stipend commensurate with such a valued position. Moreover, I invite the rest of your group as well. They can live in the village and help teach their language and customs. Mother Church needs all the information it can get hold of to aid in carrying out our mission. You, sir, and the rest, frankly, are a god-send for us. And with dear Pio's book, we can accelerate the learning process of our missionaires."
Arturo had mixed feelings about this offier. On the one hand, the proposal offered an opportunity for all of them to get far enough away from civilization so that its effects were not so sharp; far away at a remote missionary preparation center, they would be able to live in relative safety from the world, but Arturo didn't want to help teach anyone who would change the forest or its people. Despite his vicissitudes, he had grown intimate with the forest and he did not want to be (any longer) part of the seeds of its conquest, undoing and destruction. At one time, before the surveying expedition, he had given little thought to what he was doing. Now he thought another way, a way which was the harmless path of no action.
"Thank you; you are very kind. Let me think about this and discuss it with the others."
"Certainly. Nothing in haste. Take your time. I realize my offer is rather sudden--quite spontaneous, really. Think it over." And, changing the subject abruptly, the archbishop went on to say, "I'm going to write to Pio's sister in Milano; if you would like to put a letter of your own to her with mine, I'm sure she would appreciate it."
"I'd be glad to. When I bring my letter I will tell you of our decision; and I'd appreciate it if you would have a copy of Pio's grammar and dictionary made for my personal use."
"Of course. I'll even have it bound for you. Then in a few days..." he left off. The archbishop rose , and, walking around his desk, extended his hand to Arturo and saw him to the door. They parted amicably and he was lead out by an old priest-secretary.
When the taxi pulled away from the chancellery, Arturo felt restless and he told the driver to drive to the river front docks where he would walk the long esplanade and pass some time alone, for it had come to him several times that from the time of his meeting up with Pio and Meemai, then Omeru and the others, he'd not been alone.
"Stop here," he said to the driver. Arturo got out and, paying the fare, walked to an outside cafe which had caught his eye.
A comfortable chair received his tense body, a young waiter in a short white jacket came out. "Good day," he said in a naturally cheerful voice, "what will you have, sir?"
Arturo looked up and was almost at a loss for words; it had been a long time since he'd been in a cafe where service was the rule. But he remembered where he was, and, with aplumb, he ordered: "An espresso and a small brandy." The waiter gave a short bow and walked into the cafe.
At the bottom of the clear glass ashtray in which he tapped off his cigarette's ashes was written: Mariposa navigation, S.A. Passenger Service to No. America, Europe and Africa. Pier 52. How ironic, he thought, for it had been on a ship of the Mariposa Line that had brought him to this country which he now contemplated leaving.
The coffee was hot and he sweetened it to his taste; he drank some; it was good and, smacking his lips, took another sip, held it in his mouth then took a sip of the brandy and let them sit on his tongue for a moment, then swallowed. The blended liquids went down his throat smoothly and settled warmly into his receptive stomach. He drank again enjoying the tastes; and he drank again, then settled back and smoked another cigarette and was thankful he'd survived his ordeal and was alive; that precious life flowed in him and in his wife's womb.
The brandy had a fast effect on him; he felt giddy and laughed for no reason. The waiter came. "You called, sir?" When Arturo saw that the waiter had arrived thinking his tipsy laugh was a command for service, he burst into laughter which confused the young, gracious waiter. "Are you not pleased with your drinks, sir?" asked the puzzled waiter.
"Not pleased?" answered Arturo, through his earthy laughter, "of course I'm pleased. Bring me another espresso and brandy--I'm that pleased."
The waiter shrugged his shoulders and brought the laughed order to the barman.
The second glass of brandy completed his toleration of the strong liquor. His euphoria was passed and he became ruminative: "I should not have had that second brandy; I was a fool to drink it...what's coming over me? I used to drink twice as much and feel nothing...maybe I was numb in those days--the forest has purified me. What am I doing here? But we are not going to the missionary school. I can't take all of them back to the states--and any way, that's no place for them--but I've brought them here--I'm responsible for them..." And the burden he carried in his thoughts made his body feel heavy, and he was certain he was sinking deeper into his chair.
"Waiter!" he called, and the waiter came. "The check, please." "At once, sir," he replied. He handed Arturo the tally; he paid and gave the young man a generous tip to boot and walked down the docks as had been his original intention.
His gait was a bit wobbly, nonetheless, just walking was restoring his physical equilibrium, but his spirit was disturbed. He increased his pace and had covered a long distance when a woman of the docks hailed him with promises of sexual delights--for a reasonable price, she assured him. He increased his pace wanting to put as much space as possible between him and the false promises cooed to him.
"Where am I?" he asked out loud. Sprawled in a doorway he saw a man with a bottle clutched in his hand who was too drunk to rise, and as Arturo passed he could smell the man, and he found the smell disgusting. He moved on. A panhandler approached him for a handout. Suddenly he felt beseiged by people and events he found not to his liking.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw an empty bench and threw himself onto it weary from his fast-paced walking. His heart beat was fast and his breath was short. As he rested he gazed out across the wide, wide river and fixed his gaze on a freighter motoring down river to the open sea; he could see the seamen leaning on the railing having a last look before their long journey across the ocean.
He'd longed for this place called civilization and now he was here, but he was different and civilization was cold, brutal, deadly dangerous, full of ploys and false hopes--which he'd pushed away but they were now coming back into focus. Yet he also knew there were positive aspects to so-called civilization--but a part of him wanted to flee from all its aspects, go back to the refuge of the forest! That part of him, for a moment, stunned him, for he never thought he would yearn to return to that life. But on second thought, he reflected, the forest life, in spite of itself, in retrospect, seemed peaceful, free of the incumbrances and the unwholesomeness he had thus far seen. "Go!" said a voice inside. "Where?" answered another. Beset by conflicting desires, he allowed his confusion to trouble him and he regretted he'd survived the crash.
The hustle and bustle of the docks subsided as his walking took him further and further from the center until he'd past the last large ship berth and now started the small marinas where fishing boats and pleasure craft were moored. On open ground, fishermen were mending their nets and a few yachtsmen were swabbing their decks or making ready to sail. All around him there were noises of work and voices, and carried on the breeze, which had traveled the eighty miles inland up the river from the sea, the smell of the sea; and when first sensed by Arturo, positively exhilirated him, filling his mind with his own memories of the sea. He sucked in the warm, salty, iodine-laden wind deeply, filling his lungs much as a wind would fill billowing sails. "Ahhh," he let out a long, protracted, almost primitive appreciation of the wind and he became aware of the sun and how the river moved and where its currents were. His sharp eyes picked out all the dangers. He spied a stand of trees, eyed them well and knew that if one had to cross such a river a raft could be made. But Arturo caught himself: "What nonsense is this? If I need to cross over to the other side, I can go back downtown to the bridge, or pay one of the ferrymen to motor me across. I'm back in civilization--I don't need to struggle for survival."
This internal statement started him thinking that, fundamentally, his life in the forest had not been so bad and now that he was back he saw all the beauty of the forest and how, indeed, protective it was, how vulnerable he felt without that protection and he began to understand (perhaps) how Omeru felt about the forest and understood Omeru's consciousness in himself. What an awakening that was for him: He too was the forest, the embodiment of timelessness and the self-generation of life, and that the hectic life of civilization was detrimental to man and his consciousness. Unnatural tensions and stresses ate at one's nerves, poisoned the blood and the spirit. Was this the kind of life he wanted, where men contended with one another for their bread with bitterness in their hearts because they had to survive in a world which did everything to make life complicated? In the forest after the hunt men would eat the meat, drink, sing songs, maybe dance, then have a good sleep on a full belly. But here that did not obtain; instead, men "hunted" position, prestige, high salaries and this reward boiled down to just some meagre pieces of paper with an arbitrary value put on them--but there was nothing to eat! Arturo spat on the ground in grand disgust of the fruit of his mentations. He had killed a snake; they had carried the snake to the women who cleaned and cooked it; everyone had his fill, there had been no contention. And he now had to find a niche, no not the forest, but a balance between that life and this one. The world, he mused, would not get any better, so he had to make his own world better. But not in this country; no; he would leave with Meemai. And the others? Except for Lokwa, perhaps, the others would return to the forest, especially Omeru.
He liked watching the fishermen, for they came closest to the new ideals he held: Men working in harmony with and respecting nature; men risking life and limb to feed others--sometimes at a personal loss--even their very lives, and yet day after day they fished; and when they weren't fishing they mended nets, maintained their boats and practiced patience and prayed to God for a good catch and protection from storms. Yes, these men were closer to him.
At long last, through walking and breathing, the effects of the brandy wore off, and he was hungry. Not far from where the nets were being mended stood a small eating stall, a simple wood frame covered with sail canvas with two people underneath deep frying a local river fish similar to hake. A counter with four tall stools was all the room for service they had. He entered the raw thick white canvas eatery and settled onto a stool.
A small chalkboard menu announced the fare: "Fried Fish, Rice, Beer, Coffee." The prices were not dear. He ordered fish and rice. In a few minutes a sizzling place of crispy river fish with a mound of rice and a wedge of lemon were served him. He smelled the rich smells and ate heartily, enjoying every morsel as if he had not eaten for a long, long time.
Nearby church bells rang out the hour: Two P.M. Arturo was astonished, for he had left the archbishop's office just a little after Ten A.M. "Meemai and the others must be wondering what happend to me" he thought to himself. But he lingered over his lunch for he just wanted to be by himself.
His empty dish was cleared away; he smoked another cigarette and ordered a coffee. (And) as he smoked and sipped his sweet black coffee, he looked at the fishermen now, also, sitting and smoking and drinking coffee and talking among themselves. There was an attraction to them which he liked. So, paying his bill, he made his way to the area where the fishermen were sitting and sat himself at a discreet distance on a piling looking at the river and being able to catch a phrase or two of their conversation now and then. Their sitting around so relaxed and comfortable among themselves recalled silimlar times back in the forest when he and the men would sit around and talk or listen to Omeru relate some story or anecdote from his life.
The church bells tolled again; but this time he observed the time and reluctantly made his way back down the esplanade to the busy docks area where he would hail a cab and go back to Sergio's house.
Marta put down her brush, picked up a cloth and wiped her hands. The painting was finished, finished. She was exhausted. She dropped herself into an easy chair and let out a sigh from deep within, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The atmosphere of her studio was filled with the sharp smell of oil paint and a mixture of the circulating warm air coming in through the widely opened windows. She loved the smell of oil paint; she let go of her breath and breathed again. She opened her eyes and gazed at her work with pride. Never had she worked with such frenzy and feeling of purpose. There were moments when she couldn't mix her colors fast enough to continue the work.
But now the canvas was finished and she would return to the pleasant life she lived outside her studio. It was a good life she had, and Sergio was a good husband, friend-lover, artistic admirer and most understanding when it came to her unrestrained participation in the sometimes most spontaneous expressions of her crative life: He never complained when she would dash away! and close herself in her studio and not come out for many hours or days, as the mood and inspiration suited her.
She had an enviable life, some would think; but Marta did not take the comforts and priveleges she enjoyed for granted. She'd not always lived the way she did, not until Sergio finished his studies and had worked a long time at the Gomez-Cavalini Company. She had had humble origins and never forgot them. She was extravagant only with her painting: She bought only the best oils, brushes, canvas; the best easel and she had an architect open up the light of the world into her studio wherein she cast off the cares of the world and let her thoughts go only to the aesthetic creation of things for the pure joy of participating in the processes of artistic creation. Marta worked long, hard years and was rewarded for her artistic dedication.
Leaving her studio, she came back out into the human condition from her private surrealism to find Meemai and the others concerned about Arturo, who'd been expected back hours ago. Everyone shared this concern except Omeru, who didn't understand why a woman was making such a fuss over her husband's not arriving when he said he would. Were there not many things which beset a man when he left his home? Such silliness was unseemly from the wife of such a man as Turo, who was strong, a skillful hunter and a man who knew many things and was wise. What need had she to worry he questioned?
But worried she was, for she had never been away from him for so long and she was beginning to feel apprehensive and lonely, in spite of the others--not really a loneliness because of the absence of her physical partner, but she feltl deeply the absence, also, of his spirit, which gave her strength. Maybe one of the wheeled things which go fast has hit him--that was a genuine concern of hers.
Arturo walked all the way home; he didn't take a cab afterall. He walked at a steady pace; he was used to that. There was, however, a new caution in him: He found himself being very careful about traffic; he did not trust any driver, even those who showed a little courtesy and waved him to pass; he waited, however, for them to drive on, thanking them with a wave of his hand.
The streets were filled with people rushing hither and dither, each his own imperative, impelled and compelled by the unseen, but dynamic forces and concepts of civilization: Some rushed because they were late for luncheon dates; some hurried to work full of anxiety, some rushed for buses not wanting to be late getting home; some sped by bumping into the rush of people going in the opposite direction; and although Arturo saw lights and lines and policemen stopping traffic and letting pedestrians go, in spite of what might be considered normal, ordered, urban life, all he saw were ten thousand confusions and hells going every which way, but going no where, really. This was not a place he could long endure. So he, too, hastened his pace and cut away from the hustle and bustle of the city center; he also became an anonymous member of the mass going quickly no where--and he understood that about himself. How quickly one adapts to convention, he thought, as he cut through a small park which he knew would take him through a quiet, residential neighborhood.
As he walked and gawked at the high-rise apartments and the smaller apartments sandwiched in between, he got the feeling of passing under hundreds of thousands of cells filled with prisoners under house arrest. He shuddered and moved on. He was re-educating himself in the ways of the world he'd longed for, had eaten ants and worms and foul tasting meat to stay alive long enough to reach civilization. He spat on the ground in contempt for his surroundings and walked even faster in an effort to seek refuge in Sergio's house as quickly as his legs would carry him. Faster and faster he went until he couldn't help but run. He felt free when he ran. The wind was cool on his sweating, insuited body. As he ran people stopped and looked at the man running, running as if possesed!
At long last he came to Sergio's street and slowed as he approached the house.
Meemai was releaved when she heard the door open. In a trice they were in eachother's arms, she happy because he was home and unharmed, he because he felt refuge. With the door to the world now closed and he in Meemai's arms, all was right.
She spoke not a word; his closeness was communication enough for her.
Marta and Sergio came to the anteroom. "We were beginning to wonder what had happened to you. We called the chancellary, but were told you had left there in the late morning. Is everything all right, Arturo?" asked Sergio.
"Fine, just fine. I got carried away with sightseeing," he said with bravura.
"But you're all wet. What happened?" Marta asked. But before he could explain that he had been running through the streets she continued: "You'll need a hot bath. I'll start the tub for you."
Meemai, in spite of her upset understood Marta's brief exchange with Arturo. Her words were clear and she was so proud she was able to understand and being able to understand, she went along with Marta for she too wanted to help her husband and in the process she would also enjoy a warm bath with him.
She could not bathe enough times in the tub, and for her standing under the shower was a delight.
Arturo excused himself, and going to the guest room he undressed and stepped into the bath where Meemai awaited him with soaps and oils and the gentle manipulations of her hands on his taut muscles.
Amid billowing clouds of steam, Arturo let out a sigh of pleasure as he settled back in the tub of hot water and let the heat relax him, while Meemai poured water over his head and face from her cupped hands. "Don't stop," he said with a languid voice. She smiled and continued to pour water over the man she loved so deeply. At times she was astonished at her deep affection. Her Turo's love and kindness had brought out in her deep feelings she never knew she had.
After the bath they lay on the bed in their robes looking into each other's face talking in low voices, he telling of his day and she listening attentively.
"But husband, I do not understand: How can you not like your world? Is it not the place you longed for? What has happened?" she asked solicitously.
"The forest has changed me... What more can I say?" His voice trailed off and he shut his eyes and reached out his arms and drew his wife close to him.
And she whispered into his ear. "Then we will go back to the forest, to the old village we left.; the kimores are plentiful and we will have a good life, my husband. It does not matter where I go as long as I am with you."
"I can't go back to the forest, Meemai."
"But you just said--Turo--you confuse me."
"I don't mean to confuse you, my little flower--I don't feel I belong anywhere--not the forest, not here."
"Then let us go to that land far away, and build that house you spoke of. There you will be happy, my husband." She pulled away from him and sat upright and a serious look came over her face.
"As soon as it is possible we will go. There is no need for a man to be unhappy. We can tell the others of that place the chief holy man spoke of where the fathers want to learn to speak the language of my people. If they wish to go, they will be safe there. And once they are gone there will be no need for us to stay here." She spoke thusly, not looking at him, but she had put her hand on his shoulder and that hand, warm and strong and assuring, made Arturo feel that all would go well.
"I will speak to the others after dinner. Now I want to sleep for a while," he said. With which, he took her hand and pressed it to his lips and kept it there until he fell asleep.
Meemai watched over him for a while, then quietly slipped out of the room and went in search of Marta who had told her earlier there was something she wanted to show to Meemai.
Meemai had still not forgotten the slight she had received from Marta, and she thought as long as Marta was being kind to her it would be a good time to unburden herself.
Marta wanted Meemai to see the painting before she showed it to anyone else. She, therefore, invited Meemai into her studio.
Meemai ws dumbfounded: She stared at the painting, saw her face, saw a bird in a forest surrounded by bright flowers, saw herself as a bird! Oh, she was thrilled to her bones. She did not understand, however, why Marta had stayed so long in this place with the strange, unpleasant smells for so long just to paint Meemai's face on the body of a bird. She instantly loved the painting, but for her own, very natural, animistic reasons. She stepped closer to the canvas and reached out one finger to touch it. Marta was almost about to say, "No, please don't touch it; the paint is too fresh," but she didn't. She was intrigued by Meemai's facial expression of amazement and curiosity. Would that the general public could express such sentiments with eyes and facial expression only, she mused, as she continued to appreciate and study the contours of expression on her face.
Meemai's finger felt the combined textures of smooth and rough and she liked that. She turned to the artist. "I am a big bird. I like bird. Why you make me a bird?"
"When we were sitting on the grass early in the morning, you stood up and stretched your arms" and Marta demonstrated by taking up a stance and stretched out her own arms and mimicked her memory of Meemai's gesture, "I saw you as a bird. The image was so sharp in my mind I had to create the image, so I ran here to paint you as I had seen you--no other reason. Just pure, spontaneous inspiration."
"I don't understand," replied Meemai.
"I will think of another way to explain myself," she said in a slow, gentle voice. Marta realized her model had no idea of what it meant for an artist to be seized by spontaneous inspiration.
"(Because) when I saw you as a bird in my head, you were so beautiful that I wanted to keep your beauty so every body could see it, and so I came here as quickly as possible and I painted the beauty I saw," and Marta picked up a brush and made a few strokes in the air.
Meemai squinted her eyes trying to make sense of Marta's word. At first there was the sorting out of the words in her quick mind and organizing them into her own language. She understood, then understood a little more until her eyes were opened and she comprehended Marta's complete statement and Meemai's innocent heart fluttered at the thought of someone thinking her so beautiful that that person would spend so much time painting beauty Meemai did not herself see in herself. "You my friend and not angry at Meemai and run away--you go only to make beautiful bird?"
"Angry at you?" For a moment Marta was unsure, and then she (too) understood something. "Did you think I was angry and not your friend because I left you so quickly, Meemai?"
Meemai lowered her eyes and stood silently for a moment. "Yes," she said in a soft voice.
Marta went to her and with her long, slender arms embraced Meemai and held her for a moment. "No, Meemai, I was not being unfriendly." A preciousness about Meemai she'd not seen before touched Marta deeply. She disengaged. "Meemai, you are a good woman. I am your friend, please, also, be my friend."
"Yes, yes--friends," she rejoined, and the two women re-embraced in true friendship and understanding.
Everyone gathered at Arturo's request and very slowly he explained the archbishop's proposal. All listened very carefully, especially Lokwa, who at first had been so enchanted with this new world; but even he was beginning to have his doubts. But it was Emsa, who, forgetting that he should let Omeru speak first, immediately spoke out:--
"I long for the forest, for the smell of the earth and the peace a man deserves. This world of Turo's is not good for us. Show me the way and I will leave at dawn." He was calm, but emphatic.
Omeru sat on the couch. He heard his eldest son's words; they were the words Omeru would have spoken, but not so eagerly.
Lokwa spoke: "In the beginning I was most curious and now this curiosity has been satisfied. I am in accord with my brother."
Omeru was secretly pleased; but he did not allow his pleasure to be noticed. Arturo looked at the old man well-knowing he would soon speak; and he did: "This home, these people," he said, pointing to Sergio and Marta, "are good. We had no home and you gave us yours; food you gave us, a place to sleep and to wash and here we rested after our long journey. We have received only kindness and friendship. Someone's heart is touched deeply." He nodded to Arturo to interpret, which he did. Then he continued, this time addressing his family. "We journeyed far, we have seen many things--some good, some not good. We have been treated well by Turo's friends. How can we ever forget their kindness? But a man must follow his heart. The forest calls; an old man must be where his spirit wants him to be. Turo, good and dear friend, who is like a son, you know my heart, you understand this foolish old man. Show us the way and we shall return. My heart grieves, however, that we shall no longer be in your good company." And then he was silent and lowered his head.
The women openly cried. Marta did not understand and was concerned. "Arturo, why are these women crying?" He explained Omeru's words and she understood and felt a bit sad.
It was settled, then. Arturo spoke to Sergio. "Can we get one of the company's vans to drive them toward the Gueneroco? If we give them proper direction they can follow it back the way we came and eventually reach home. What do you think?"
"I don't see any problem. We can all go. There is a narrow, secondary road which follows the dry river for some miles. It's a pretty rough road, but I'm sure a four-wheel drive can make it. When the road runs out we can go a bit further--maybe to near where the tank stopped. I'll need a couple of days to arrange transportation. In the meanwhile, we can buy them what supplies they'll need, and whatever else they want to take back with them."
Afterward, Omeru asked that a fire be lit outside, and for a few hours they all sat under the stars by the fire. The women sang some songs and Omeru recounted one of his endless anecdotes.
Arturo collected his considerable back pay and benefits plus a very substantial hardship bonus from his employer. He was richer thereby than he had ever been before. Being the only survivor, he was asked to write an official report. He wrote what he could. He omitted watching Ugo die and the ants crawling on his face. He asked after Ugo's wife, but was told she'd gone to Chicago to stay with her uncle. He wrote her a short letter, but threw it away. There was no longer any reason to say anythjing; what had happened was in the past and best forgotten.
Sergio made the travel arrnagements as he'd promised. Lokwa wanted a rifle. Arturo bought him one and five hundred rounds of ammunition; but when Omeru found out, he remonstrated with his son. "No; it is not our way. True, it is a most powerful weapon; but it will make you lazy, and when you have used all your shiny fire darts, will you come back here and ask for more?"
Lokwa felt slighted, imporperly admonished before the others; but he acquiesced to his father's wishes. Arturo returned the rifle and ammunition and got his money back and bought Lokwa a fine machete and a long hunting knife and a whetstone instead. The women wanted only some hand mirrors (which they had come to like) and packets of sewing needles. Tumela had admired scissors and asked for a pair.
All was in readiness. Marta did not go; but she waved and waved to all of them with tears in her eyes. She was glad, however, that Meemai would be back. The large van vanished around a corner and she walked back into the house. She missed them already. But she had work to do in her studio.
They were at the edge of the forest; they set up camp; the women prepared food; they all ate in silence; everyone knew this was their last meal together and they would never see each other again. Tumela had tears in her eyes and could hardly see her food. The other women seeing her plight and well-knowing why the flood of tears, wept with her; and soon the silence was broken by the wailing of the women who'd put down their food and crowded around Meemai, their sister. They touched her cheeks and rubbed her belly and she embraced each one warmly, lovingly.
The men held stoic faces, all that is except Omeru, who let some tears fall, but had not stopped eating. Arturo, although moved by the sentiments of the women, breathed deply, letting the emotions sweeping over him pass and he managed to quiet his beating heart. He too would miss his friends, but he knew that each must chose his path, and he went on eating.
After the weeping and after the dinner things had been put away, Omeru spoke to Arturo: "My son, nothing makes a man sadder than to lose a friend. These women have demonstrated how they feel; among our poeple it is not seemly for a man to act so; but I am an old man and there are many things I no longer hold to, but my heart is heavy that at dawn we will walk to the forest without you. I have come to learn many things from you about your world, but, most of all, I have come to know the kind of man you are. You are a good man, Turo. When we met you in the forest you fed us and you gave us shelter; these things are important, they help to sustain life. You have taken to wife a duaghter of our forest and made her with child; with that you help to continue the generations and that is good. I have seen how you treat her, too, which has touched me deeply. Your heart is gentle and your feelings deep. I shall miss you and my daughter and shall remember you both until my spirit leaves this body."
"Your words are kind, but make me sad," said Arturo. "I regret losing you, too; but that is the way of the world, I shall always remember you and what you have taught me."
Omeru rose and stepped in front of Arturo, who got up to meet him. The two men embraced, and, inspired by their father, Lokwa, Emsa and Kokori, each in his turn embraced Arturo in farewell. Sergio, looking on, was not untouched by what was happening.
Omeru spoke again: "Turo, tell your friend that I shall never forget his kindness and that of his wife, too; they shall always be in my heart." and while Arturo interpreted, Omeru and the other men embraced Sergio in thanks and farewell.
The fire died down, the women slept together and soon all were asleep.
When Arturo awoke the next morning, the forest people were gone.
After a silent breakfast, they broke camp, and with a last look at the forest, they drove away.
The paper work was vexing and, at times, infuriating for Arturo. Meemai did not know when she was born; and in order for them to be married under the laws of civilization, she needed, first, a birth certificate, which obviously she did not have; but it was (also) a most important document, as the American consular authorities told him she would need either a birth certificate or a valid passport for identification purposes before he could apply for her immigration papers.
It was Sergio who came to the rescue: He had a connection with a high official in the Ministry of Health, from which came all birth certificates; but first, considering the circumstances, Meemai would have to be examined by a physician to determine her age. A kindly doctor examined the bewildered Meemai. Through Arturo the doctor asked Meemai many questions no man ever asked of a woman--not even a husband; she, nevertheless, suffered in silent humiliation, for her Turo had explained the necessity of the physical examination and questions. Still, however, the very notion of a birth certificate, passport, visas and immigration papers were still beyond her ken. But she was learning.
"Cannot a human being just be born. live and die without all of your papers, and can't one simply go from one place to another without papers, my husband?" she asked ingenuously. And he had to reply sadly, that indeed, such was his world.
The kindly doctor, after having consulted with a colleague, concluded that Meemai was probably about twenty- three or twenty-four or so years old. He signed a certificate stating so, which certificate was taken by Sergio to his connection in the Ministry of Health, who after having scrutinized the doctor's certificate, wrote a not to the chief of the Bureau of Vital Statistics and, the wheels of bureaucracy turned. In a few days a birth certificate with official seals and signatures arrived by special courier for Meemai Fortebraccio, as she was registered and Sergio, when asked by his connection at the ministry for a birthday said, "The first of November," which was Marta's birthday; and the day was duly recorded on the certificate. Meemai was at last inscribed onto the rolls of civilization, her origins notwithstanding. She sat for a national identification card picture and passport and visa pictures.
They were married in a simple, quiet civil ceremony with Sergio and Marta as witnessess. Meemai had learned to sign her name and she was thrilled when told that with that name signing in the marriage registry book, she and Turo were married under his laws. She'd always felt proudly married to him, but somehow, the signing of the book made her marriage under his laws special, and she beamed as Sergio asked them to pose for a photograph on the winding marble Baroque stairs of the registry office. Meemai was wearing a pale yellow maternity dress and low-heeled shoes she was beginning to accustom to. Her smile of happiness was forever captured on the film.
The day came when all the papers were in order and tickets purchased, suitcases packed and Arturo and Meemai were in their room at Sergio's the night before their departure. He'd noticed an object wrapped in a skin he recognized from their forest journey. "Meemai, what's in here?" he asked, pointing to the skin.
She looked to the bundle, then her eyes darted to her husband, then back to the bundle. She had kept hidden all the months of their trip, had carried it in her field bag: Kwa-a's skull and a bag of his powdered bones which, according to her laws, at the end of a year, she would make the powdered bone into a soup, then drink the soup and her duty to her late husband's spirit would be complete.
She was a long time in telling him that, but, at long last, it was said. Arturo shook his head. "No, Meemai, that belongs to another world, another time--plus, you are married to me--you have no obligation to Kwa-a."
But she did not want to displease her husband, yet she felt duty-bound to carry out the ritual and she told him.
He sat down beside her, put his arm around her shoulder, "My sweet Meemai, you are a kind and conscientious woman and I love you deeply, but I cannot allow you to fulfill this old obligation. As far as I'm concerned, your drinking a soup with his powdered bones would be like drinking poison--and I do not want our child poisoned by Kwa-a. I killed him! He's dead--and everything about him is dead."
Now it was Meemai who shook her head. "No, my husband, he is not completely dead--not until I drink his soup."
"But I don't want you to do that." Suddenly he realized he was upset; they were having their first disagreement--a very major one. He quieted his spirit then spoke: "If Pio were alive, and with us, he would forbid you to do such a thing. For his sake do not do this."
At the mention of Pio and his probable proscription and her husband's attitude, made her confused, for she was motivated by an ancient custom ingrained in her; but here was her husband not wanting her and (in a sense) Pio not wanting her to do this thing. These two figures of authority were strong and she was far away from her people and customs. She wanted to obey both, but had to admit that was not possible.
She turned to Arturo with bowed head. "I do not want Kwa-a's spirit to be unhappy--even if I urged you to kill him. It is the way of my people."
"His spirit cannot touch you. I am with you and Pio's spirit is with you, and no harm can come to you. Please, Meemai, do not do this in memory of Pio and because your husband is against it. Please..."
Meemai was caught in between her loyalty to the past and her loyalty to the present: One side of her needed to act out the ancient ritual and another side, a little frightened, wanted to follow the rules of her new world. But her loyalty to Arturo and the memory of Pio were greater than her past.
"Then, come, husband, let us go and bury the skull and powdered bones, leave them in this land; that may appease Kwa-a's spirit and he will rest."
And so they borrowed Sergio's car and drove to a remote spot beyond the city limits. She held a flashlight as Arturo dug a hole. When he'd finished digging, Meemai took the bundle and reverently place it in the hole and together they buried the secret of their past.
The MS Victoria Star sailed on time. Sergio and Marta stood on the dock and waved as the large vessel was pushed out into midstream by ocean going tugs. They stayed on the dock waving until the figures of Arturo and Meemai were undifferentiated from the other passengers waving to wellwishers on shore.
Finished original draft 21 February 1988, Albuquerque
Finished typing 2nd draft 15 June 1988
re-read and corrected 9-18-91, 12-13-92, Dec. '95, again 1997 and this draft finished 9 January 1998, San Franciscio
Anamu, the name of a village
Cha-kotte, kill him
Dojana, wild pig, boar
Garala, the name of a river
Guaneroco, the name of a large, dry river
Gwoma, zuta, zuta, zuta. Gwomatote chatte, chatte. A chant
Kweiwi, Meemai's language and people
Kimores, a tuber, much like a potatoe, but yellow in color
Lawila, medicine bag kept in the council house
Ma-Heh-Ma-Heh, archetypal female fire carrier
Minuanua, a remote province in X
Ma-Tou, Great Mother image
O-Wame`, god of thunder, rain, wind and clouds
Pagu, no, not
Tamurones, a Kweiwi speaking people, kin to the Kweiwi
Ulak, a kind of edible root used as a peace offering.
Uli, uli, very bright lesh; steam issued forth carrying with it the earthy aroma of
1/28/98 11/1/96 A�##won't have to go back and forth so many times," he said to Ugo who only smiled.
Ugo's entire body was now numb, even his facial muscles; he could masticate, but he felt nothing and tasted nothing.
The fire felt good, and with a full belly Arturo started to doze; soon he was asleep in place, where he slept many hours of a deep sleep, the sleep that heals.
While Arturo slept, Ugo died. The injuries to his spine and to his organs had taken their toll. When