Ways of the Spirits
Rays of sun pierced the canopy above, sending pools of yellow light to dance among the undergrowth. The crack of an ax as it struck echoed through the forest, accom- panied by loud, festive chants. The sound of community.
Buoyed by the excited commotion below, Kenchi's stokes were quick and forceful, sending chips of healthy tan wood flying into the air. This was the third canoe to be carved this summer alone, the most ever made in that amount of time. It was deep in the warm season, and the relentless heat sent sweat pouring down Kenchi's face. But he did not notice, nor did he notice the beginning ache in his arms; even his tall, muscular body tired after hours work.
There was a sharp crack, and suddenly the tree began to tip. Shouts of excitement came from where the others danced, whoops and hollers intermixed with thankful prayers to the spirits. Jumping down, Kenchi watched with satisfaction as the tree slid to the ground in a fire of cracks and bangs, finally resting on a bed of fern leaves.
His knife slid easily into the tree's fresh bark, and as the men labored at the flesh-like surface, the wommon hauled baskets brimming with excess wood into the village. Though the village storerooms already overflowed with the sweet-smelling Sagu, none of the wood would ever go to waste, which, when prepared correctly, constituted as the village's main diet.
The cloudless sky above soon darkened as the sun dipped behind a reddening horizon, and cool night air quickly replaced the scalding heat. Kenchi stopped for a moment and surveyed the surrounding trees, eyeing dark shadows which spread across the uneven ground in an eerie pattern. Standing, he turned to the others working hard on what now seemed a long wooden bean pod. At the sound of his voice, all eyes were suddenly on him.
"The darkness is spreading. The night spirits might soon awake. We must leave." A murmur of agreement rose from the men as they stood, setting off through the foliage. Trotting up beside Kenchi, his son Tiyen seemed about ready to explode with joy, and Kenchi shared his emotions fully. It had been a great day, and now they returned to a feast in celebration and gratitude to the spirits who gave them this perfect tree.
Tall and hard, Tiyen was almost to his 16th naming day, and had begun to learn the importance of becoming a chief. His coarse, black hair was tied in a bun at the nape of his neck, and a few yellow flowers still hung there, remnants of the tree-cutting ceremony. He walked on silently, head bowed, until Kenchi grunted permission for him to speak.
"Gashu…" Tiyen began, glancing up at his father's smiling face. Gashu was a respective term, meaning both chief and medicine man, for they were one in the same. As tradition, family connections were never revealed outside the Uma, or home. These connections could represent a great weakness in battle.
"Yes, nich?" Nich was used in reference to all those who had not yet been raised.
"I… I know I was to take Sorlen's place on the boats when he was retired, but work is quick on this canoe, and tomorrow it will be done well before the sun's lowering, and with the extra room, I…"
"You will accompany the fishing party tomorrow with your Unta's consent." Kenchi replied to the unasked question. Unta ment Female caretaker. Though many children lived with their birth mothers, others who's mothers had left for the warrior's tribe were given to different parents, never to know they were not truly birthed by their Unta. Tiyen was one of those few, for by custom, if the wife of a chief did not produce a boy heir by their tenth anniversary, one was made available.
Tiyen's broad smile sent even more joy coursing through Kenchi's veins. Had he been younger, Kenchi would most likely have started jumping in uncontrolled delight, yet now he at least contained his outside emotions. Inside, he was leaping past clouds.
The feast was incredible. Bowls and bowls of fresh Sagu littered the table, which was made from the shaved undersides of two fat logs wedged between thick tree-trucks. A range of fruits decorated the remaining table space in a colorful array, yet surprisingly few bugs were drawn by the sweet aroma. A ritual dance was held around the huge center fire, and the tribe sang and danced freely, surrounded by friends and safe from the shadowed forests depths.
In the late night, Kenchi was stopped by an old, scarred wommon, long dark hair framing a pale face. Her large, deep-set seemed worried, and Kenchi allowed himself to be dragged away, ignoring the questioning gazes which watched him depart. The Gashu of a tribe always stayed for entire ceremonies, but Kenchi knew this wommon, and if she was worried, he should be frantic.
"What is it, Unta?" Kenchi snapped, and immediately wished he hadn't. Her piecing gaze never wavered, though, that hint of worry making it almost impossible for him to keep calm.
She sighed, taking his hand in hers. "Your daughter has a sickness. Large bumps on her face, and a rash. She burns like fire, Kenchi. And she is not the only one. Three others have come ill since you left. The worst seems near death, and is having visions." She bowed her head in resignation. "Your wife is a good healer. She knows much. Perhaps more then I. But we cannot help what we do not know. And neither of us has ever seen this sickness before."
Kenchi's throat tightened. Why would the spirits send sickness when they seemed so pleased with his people? Their were three canoes and an ample amount of food to prove this. Had the tribe not thanked them enough?
But Kenchi doubted he could help. The wife of a chief was always the village healer, and his Unta was a great healer, as was his wife. Many had come from tribes far away just for their herbs. Yet he knew nothing of herbs, only spirits and their ways. And that they would not take away the sickness, even if he pleaded with them day and night, was something he was sure of. The spirits believed a punishment must be taken in full, and you'd be better off moving a mountain then changing their minds.
None the less, he followed his Unta through the village. He knew there would be no more dancing for him, but he did not mind. In fact, he had completely forgotten about the celebration. All that mattered was his daughter, and the others, of course, who were sick. He knew it was to be a long night, but he would have never guessed how long.
* * *
Dawn came slowly to the village, yet the tentative chirps of birds as they awoke was all that greeted the quiet land. The canoe sat half-finished in it's bed of ferns, and the remnants of the night's festivities lay strewn across the floor, but no one bothered to clean up. There would be no fishing today.
Standing on weak knees, Kenchi made a quick prayer over his daughter's body before he was led out the door and into the glinting sunlight. That was the second of his daughters to have died, along with over forty others. That was over 1/10th of the entire village population, while almost half the remaining citizens bore some symptom that they too were infected. Yet no one seemed to be recovering. He, along with the rest of the camp, were mortified by the swiftness of the disease, and frightened.
The night had carried with it a flurry of people come to ask of him help or advice, most only discovering for the first time that the disease was rampant. The ceremony had been cut short, as villagers left for their beds. Rest was crucial for when the body battles spirits of evil, and those included in the unseen war always tired easily.
As Kenchi stepped through another doorway, the rotten smell of sickness filled his nose. Yet he did not notice. The smell had become undetectable to him as the night wore on, while he was continually led from hut to hut, from bed to bed, from death to death. His mind had numbed sometime during the night, and now life was a monotonous strain of prayers and consoling words. It seemed impossible that he had ever felt happiness in his life, and the day before seemed more a dream then reality.
On his way out, he was stopped suddenly by his wife, puffy eyes nesting in rings of dark purple. She looked exhausted, and he was just about to tell her that when she spoke, eyeing him with concern. "You must get some sleep, Kenchi. I may not know much about spirits, but I do know nothing can be accomplished with a head clouded in fatigue. You've done what you can for now." Turning to a wommon beside him who had been assisting in his prayers, Kenchi's wife addressed her as though she were leaving a child in her care. "Take him to our hut, now, and be sure he rests. He will protest, but ignore every word. It is for his own good." The wommon nodded, and his wife walked off, trailing along two young girls in her wake, most likely assistants of hers.
Kenchi grumbled under his breath, but said nothing aloud. He was not a child, and he would not protest.
* * *
The surrounding trees were scorched, dead limbs silhouetted in an orange sky, where a black sun hung lazily behind highlighted clouds. Below, the barren ground was littered with the bodies of the dead, burnt flesh peeling in brown flakes.
Kenchi watched silently as a man, dressed in colorful robes and adorned in a huge assortment of flowers, danced among the dead with agile steps. Though Kenchi watched from afar, he knew for a fact that this dancing man, who easily moved without truly touching a single body, was himself, playing in the land where his victims lay strewn across the cracked dirt.
But when the man turned, he saw the face was not his. Black as the night, it's thin lips were parted in a menacing smile. Some would call it the devil, but to Kenchi and his people it was only known as a man of evil, the spirit who caused death and destruction and felt no pity for those who suffered because of him. But the thought persisted. Beneath that black skin, that embodiment of pure evil was him. He was the devil. And he had taken the life from all those which stood at his feet, in cold, unfeeling murder.
* * *
Kenchi awoke bathed in cold sweat, an awful taste on his tongue. Sitting upright, he looked about. His family stared back, at least, what was left of it. They seemed terrified.
"You screamed." His young niece said. "Very loud."
Standing, Kenchi stretched stiff muscles, showing them there was nothing wrong. It was a lie, and he knew it, but there was no reason to scare them even more. "I apologize for frightening you." He said swiftly. "Where is my wife?"
As if on queue, she stepped through the doorway, glancing about before letting her eyes rest on him. Judging by her face, she still had not rested. "I'm glad your awake. I must speak to you."
"What is it?" Kenchi asked. He did feel refreshed, despite the dream, and he finally knew how to rid the village of the sickness. It was the closest thing to joy he had felt in what seemed a very long time.
"Tiyen has died." She said shortly, lowering her head.
This set Kenchi back. That boy not only ment the world to him, but he had played a very important role in eradicating the illness. Kenchi would have to change his plan a bit. "What of Killia?" Killia was his last remaining daughter, at least, she had been when he went to bed, though she had been ill.
"She has recovered from the sickness." Kenchi's sister said from the corner. All-in-all, over nine people were in the hut at that moment, and each had as much a right to be there as he, for they all lived in the small wooden house.
"Recovered?" He asked, to be sure.
"Yes, many have begun to recover, though others are still taken by the spirits." His wife said with a weak smile.
"Then the spirits favor my decision." He murmured, not meaning to be heard.
Confused stares turned to him. "What decision?" His aunt asked, sitting up strait.
They should know. They were his family, and in any case, they would find out sooner or later. "I have decided to perform the Machara."
A gasp went through the room, and his niece, dark blond hair falling past her shoulders, turned into her Unta and began weeping as a child would.
"Whatever for?" His wife's voice was full of concern, and her eyes seemed ready to burst with tears.
Kenchi lay his head in his hands. He was mad at himself. He knew he should never do this to his family, yet he also knew that if he did not, all would die. "I will not tell you my dream. We all know how privet those messages from the spirits are. But…" He stopped, hearing a sob. He did not have to look up to know it came not from his small niece, still lying huddled in her mother's arms, but from his wife. It pierced his heart deeper then any knife ever could, but, sucking in a deep breath, he continued. "They made it clear I am the cause of this sickness. See? Look at my face! I have no symptoms. While those around me die, I stay healthy. It can only be because I am protected by the evil I have caused. If I leave, all will be well again." He shuddered as that black face, it's smile now seeming to mock him, flashed before his eyes. "I'm so sorry"
He sat back down on his bedding, which was truly just a nest of soft green leaves, and lowered his head. It took him awhile to realize tears had begun to roll down his cheeks, but when he did realize, he did not try to stop the flow. It was better this way. It was. It had to be.
* * *
Strait backed, Kenchi walked down the isle of people, a long wall of them to either side, each one's eyes planted on him. He could hear the sobs of some, but none cried out. They knew how sacred this ritual was, and they would not disturb the balance.
At the end stood Killia, the chieftain's belt tied about her waist. The village had been awestruck when he announced the news of his exile, and just as surprised when he said Killia would be the chief. She would be a healer, apprentice to her mother, and her husband-to-be would be the medicine man, trained by a good friend and future chief from another tribe. Yet Kenchi wanted his blood to flow in the veins of the next chief, and whether he was being selfish or not, the village seemed to understand.
He knelt down before her, tilting his head back, and closed his eyes. Her fingers were warm, and she pulled open his eye gently, as if handling a small child. He had barely enough time to see the drop falling before it splashed into his eye. His lids closed automatically, his neck stiffening until it hurt, but he did not let those behind him see the terrible stinging pain he was being submitted to. He would leave in dignity, not disgrace.
The other drop went in quickly, those warm fingers wiping away the access liquid that spilled down his cheek as a tiny, poison tear. The pain soon faded, and when he opened his eyes, he saw blackness. Again he was reminded of that face, but this time, it was not smiling at all.
Killia led him to the woods, reciting a chant he had taught her that very day. It was a long, sorrowful ritual, accompanied by the crying of an entire tribe. He could not understand their tears, after the pain he had caused the village, but he welcomed them. He was sure he could hear his wife's soft cries, somewhere.
As the ceremony neared it's end, he was faced toward the forest, and wished luck on his journey to the other world. This ceremony was reserved for criminals only, those who wanted to keep some honor by going through the rigors of exile instead of loosing it in execution. Was that what he was, now? A criminal? He had murdered so many, how could he not be?
With resignation, he headed into the trees, feeling his way through a now foreign land where it was forever night. If he was the devil, he was suppose to enjoy the cool darkness. He loathed it.
* * *
Two days past. He stayed sane only in the knowledge that he had done what was right; he had overcome the evil inside himself for one humane instant, and saved his village from near disaster.
The world went by him in blackness, yet he continued to scramble forward, away from his home. The farther he was from that sacred land, the less likely he was to still taint it with his evil. He must get away.
The sound of rushing water brightened him. Crawling to the bank of what seemed a small stream, he drank the crisp liquid, relieved from the blistering sun. He was so hot. Dipping his hands into the stream, he splashed water onto his face, matting his hair down with the cooling liquid. As he began to rub his face dry, he noticed a bump on his forehead. It hurt to the touch, and feeling his arms and legs revealed a collection of bumps in different sizes.
Turning to the sky, he suddenly realized there was no yellow light shinning down. Despite his blindness, he could always see yellow light were the sun sat, yet now that he concentrated, it was far darker then in the daytime.
He suddenly felt very faint. He was not protected by evil; he had gotten the same disease he had begun. But that was impossible. He could have…
Sitting up, he let out a long, mournful howl. He had left his family, for what? Stupid pride. He clawed at his face, at his unseeing eyes. He banged his head against the stony ground, tore at his hair. The bumps ached. He did not care. He tore at himself, his fingernails digging holes into soft flesh, his teeth ripping away skin and leaving the taste of rust on his tongue. He hated himself. He hated what he was. What he had done.
After awhile, he calmed, laying back on the uneven stones. He could feel blood dripping from every part of his body, feel himself loosing consciousness. And as horrible life lapsed into endless sleep, he looked up. Not to blackness, but to the sky. To the spirits above; and he knew that there, he was welcome.
Last Updated: 5/3/97