Seonaid and Fearchar watched time slip by. Plants grew, and the seasons changed from dry to wet. Callum and Albin grew out of their baby fat.
“It was into their third or fourth year that I was taken in by the doctor of the village when he learned I had talent for healing. Ajuji had come down with a seasonal cough, but he feared the doctor and refused to see him. I provided him a dose of one of my simple tinctures to still the aggravation. Kgomotso, whose uncle was close to the doctor, told his family. Soon enough, everyone knew that I had cured Ajuji’s cough. I trained in their way and contributed my own learnings in earnest. The man taught me the various plants and insects, animals, river creatures of the forest and how to harvest and store them.
“He taught me how to render dyes to be used for clothing and ceremonies. I remember the first time trying bat. That was a horrifying experience, more so than the snakes.” He quivered at the memory, the crunchy leather scratching across their senses.
“He was a great man. I don’t think anyone in the village knew how old he was. Everyone referred to him respectfully as Baba or elder. He was the one who blessed me with the name Impundulu, making me a formal member of the village the night I saved Lindelwa from being taken by a crocodile. The beast was later eaten.” He flexed his hand, remembering touching the creature. Its hide had been thick and scaled, wet from the river, yet warm from its daytime sunning. The deep bellow in its throat as he had passed the fear he felt into the animal had resonated through his bones. “It’s amazing how much fear a human can contain within themselves.” He looked up at them, trying to fight that moment of panic all over again.
“Baba died in the middle of the wet season when Callum and Albin had started to speak full sentences. The village mourned in such a wretched way I never thought we would come out of it. I was entrusted with his funeral pyre, and Amina and Tau provided the ceremony for accepting me as the village’s doctor in place of Baba. I was not nearly so prepared to provide alone. He knew so much and left too soon,” Eoin confessed.
He stood in the darkness, embers sparking up through the canopy of the trees to burn out near the stars. His lower half was wrapped in a fine white, grey, maroon, and green patterned cloth, a belt of fur holding it at the waist. His feet had been painted with red mud up to his ankles. A thin string of black and red beads hung from his right shoulder to his left hip. His tattoos glowed in the dusk. A silver bracelet stacked with white shell bangles flashed at his wrist. A net cape-like necklace, worked finely with small white and dyed red shells and fur, draped from his neck to his shoulders. Smudged red markings ran in parallel from his hairline, down the middle of his eyelids to his chin. In one hand, he held what appeared to be a heavily decorated gourd. In the other, a long walking stick with a bulbous end to it, feathers tied at the base of the protrusion.
“Wha’s Impundulu?” Fearchar asked, a tingle of fear rippling up his skin as Eoin battled with his emotions once more. Eoin allowed the ceremonial outfit to melt away to his regular clothing.
“It’s based on a legend from Amina, Tau, and Baba’s old tribe. A massive bird that lives in the clouds of storms. He is the size of a human, a grand white and black beast. When he lands, he brings down lightning upon the land. It is thought to be a bad omen and drinks blood, which I could have done without knowing. Baba said that I must be the lightning bird’s human form. The villagers thought that I must be a protective spirit. Maybe bad omen should have been considered more. Not like it did much good.” He twisted a metal stick that flashed silver in his fingers.
“Your hairstick?” Seonaid motioned to the instrument. He handed it to her, ginger with it in his thoughts. She gently took it from him to look it over. It was graciously carved with tiny animals that led up to the stick’s head, a fan shape with a bird carved in it. The animal’s wings opened wide, little lines zig-zagging away from it.
“It wasn’t always a hairstick. It had been a bracelet. Later I had the metal straightened to use as a hairstick.” He looked down at his bare wrists.
“The bracers?” Fearchar guessed.
“They came later.” Eoin nodded.
“Is this where Albin and Callum are now?” Seonaid returned the stick and turned to wander down the centre lane of the village as the sun rose to dispel the night. Eoin stopped short, watching the children play in his dreams. Seonaid flinched at a squeezing unease in her chest. “Eoin?” she turned back to him. He flicked a glance past her to rising smoke and dust at the edge of the tree line. She turned to see what he was staring at.
“The villagers called this place Egret Nest. Massive, beautiful birds they are, egrets, that is. They congregate in great colonies in trees with other birds of the rivers. In this way, they protect each other.” His focus turned to the village again, a sad happiness masking his emotions. Fearchar stood next to him, watching as the scene in the village shifted.
The villagers were an industrious, generous bunch. Huts extended from what was a small site deep into the forest. Amina and Tau brought many newcomers home with them. Friendships were made. The seasons flowed through the trees. Albin and Callum aged with their playmates. They grew taller and leaner. Their brilliant white hair was allowed to grow long.
Eoin provided care to sick villagers. He helped to ease both birth and death for the people. He was in the process of selecting a young man to begin apprenticing. Fearchar couldn’t quite ease the sick knot of fear from his gut, though, and Seonaid continued to watch the smoke and dust on the outside of the village, never quite leaving.
“I travelled with Amina and Tau to the regional market on many occasions through the years we spent there. I was able to collect necessary ingredients that our forest could not provide us with. There were these rumours, though, at the markets. Family and friends of friends would go missing. I was not regarded kindly by some of these people, and eventually, I stopped travelling to the market due to the animosity.” He walked back to his little cabin and garden.
“The boys had to be in their fifth year, I want to say. A few months after the crocodile. A few more months after Baba died and left me as his replacement. Callum and Albin were born at the dawning of spring here on the Isle, but I slowly lost track of time in the forest of the Egret Nest.” He lifted a stick from the side of his cabin and dug at the weeds in his little garden.
Albin and Callum ran up, excitedly speaking over each other with various low notes and clicks. Fearchar and Seonaid, perplexed, glanced at each other. “Their first language was that of the village. They never learned to form our language. It was how I communicated with them.”
He eased the boys’ speech and had them talk more slowly. Eoin looked up at the growing smoke and dust cloud. The now setting sun thrust bloody fingers through the clouds, turning the world a burnt red. Shouting and screaming erupted around them. Black smoke from the farthest end of the settlement billowed up and cast murky orange shadows on the trunks of the trees. A spark lit. The forest roared. Men, women, and children rushed up the path past Fearchar and Seonaid as Eoin took the boys and ran with the crowd.
Fearchar and Seonaid hurried after him. Loops of cord settled about their necks, stalling their progress. Snapping metal and cries and screams were barely audible above the growing bellow of the flames.
“Eoin!” Fearchar shouted as he watched the man fall, protecting his children. Men that weren’t members of the village crowded around those trapped in the nets. Eoin was pulled away from his boys. He fought and clawed at the men, seeking out bare skin where he could but crumpled with a solid kick to the stomach. Manacles and a collar were snapped on him. The boys were soon cuffed and linked to him.
Eoin looked up at Seonaid and Fearchar, a bruise forming at the corner of his eye. His lip was split and bloody. “Egret Nest burned to embers. Thirteen of the villagers died that night, including three playmates of my boys and my apprentice. The men were slave traders, and our village, with so little protection, was easy pickings. They destroyed everything that was home for my people. I could do nothing for them.” He fell back with Fearchar and Seonaid, dropping from the memory through the ground into his black void. The manacles evaporated with the memory.
The doctor released Seonaid and Fearchar back to their house. Eoin rubbed at his face and his temples. He drew in a steadying breath and turned to the couple. They blinked back at him, startled at the revelation.
The fire had died down. By the angle of the grey light, it was well past the midday meal. Eoin’s stomach growled in the quiet of the room. Fearchar got up from the rug, grabbed his cloak, and left to retrieve another stack of peat flats. Seonaid prepared the griddle for the midday meal quietly. Eoin moved out of the way and leaned back against the bed frames, lost in his thoughts.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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