The tribe in the forest

And yet these buccaneers still kneel   
Trembling at the water’s verge:   
“Cool River-Goddess, sweet ravine,   
Spirit of pool and shade, inspire!”   
So he needs poultice for his flesh.   
So he needs water for his fire.
                                                     -A Muse of Water, Carolyn Kizer. 
Sometimes I wondered if the songs they sung were songs at all? Or were they just prayers, rhythmically transcribed as to create the illusion of it being a song? Which is the most baffling part about being acquainted with a new language, you cannot distinguish the prayers from the songs. You do not know whether to dance and caper about wholeheartedly or slacken your senses in a state of transient devotion to the higher power?
And on these, rather frequent, occasions of either merriment or devotion, I saw them gather outside their tents of red and yellow. Their faces smeared with colours of white and red in intricate patterns, their mascaraed eyes, their bloodstained lips made their individual identity undecipherable.
“It is the whole purpose of it”, explained our translator, who himself had only faint knowledge of their language. According to him, it would take an outsider an approximate of 35 years, depending on his or her grasping ability, to be well-versed with their language. The reason, he said, was because we cannot understand their way of thinking. “They cover their faces with all these colours as to be unrecognizable as an individual when they stand in front of ‘her’. It is a symbol of them being equal in her eyes. Whether they are praying or tripping around in joy, they do it for ‘her’. They believe that humans generally acknowledge ‘her’ only in the times of need or despair. They disagree to it. They believe that it isn’t right to only remember ‘her’ for our self-centered values. They remember ‘her’ both in the times of grief and during the times of merry-making. Whether it is crying over the famines or celebrating over the harvest, they believe that they are constantly surrounded by her. That she is always there, watching them…”
I was particularly amazed for how he used the word humans for the rest of us. Perhaps it was well justified. As they danced around the fire in their whimsical movements, frolicking around in circles, wearing only a headband with the feathers of an Eagle, the skin of a spotted dear to cover their genitals and the colours, I realized that perhaps they were indeed a different breed in general. They cannot be us. We cannot be them. It was having two seperate universes in a single world, and to only think of the consequences when the two of them collide…
Our quest for ‘her’ is what dragged both of us us here in the first place. And as the days went by Fareed’s anticipation had taken its toll.
He was like all others his age, Fareed, zealous and energetic and pompous. All the initial emotions an explorer feels. And I must agree, I saw a large amount of the younger me in Fareed. Charming young man, an enthusiastic protege I must admit. The most vital thing was that we were both two individuals driven by our obsession for one thing in general. Inquisitiveness.
Could be a little adamant and ignoramus at times, yes! Like his obsession with canvas shoes. I had specifically instructed him to wear those heavy toe-capped safety Woodlands, but sometimes instructing him felt like banging my head on a wall. “They are way more cooler!”, he said, playfully showing off his canvas shoes.
‘Cooler!’ Kids these days!
When we first reached here, the people of the tribe were, unexpectedly, quite hospitable. They welcomed us us with garlands made of garlic( a sacred vegetable for them), marked our foreheads with soot and as our translator instructed them of our intentions, they insisted on us staying with them for a few days as to have the adequate amount of information that we needed. They arranged tents for our lodging and served us with bear meat for dinner on the first day. Needless to say, the meals were rather unpleasant.
There were glimpses of their culture that we gathered over the days. They believed in the Heaven and the Underworld just like the Biblical theory suggested it to be, but they did not believe that ‘she’ resides in any of these. There was an old acacia tree that grew in the exact centre of the village. They said it was more than three thousand years old and ‘she’ held her existence within it. They nurtured it like a child, decorated it with garlands of garlic, scented it with sandalwood for sanctity and worshiped it. They believed that the mere existence of their tribe depended upon the existence of the tree and that one day, when the devil shall manifest the Earth and all that is pure shall be crumbled to ashes, a lightning shall strike the tree, devouring with it the existence of the whole community.

On the fifteenth and last day of our visit, was when the preacher arrived….

She was a frail old woman, with arthritic legs and had two apprentices carry her around in a palanquin. A nearly balding scalp, a necklace made of tiny bones, deep mascaraed eyes, all those things that make for a pretentious, pompous voodoo saint in our world, but the people of the tribe believed in her. They respected and worshiped the same as they would worship ‘her’, for they believed that she was the one that could truly unite them with ‘her’.The women gifted their ornaments to her and men the first crops of harvest. They brought their little children with them, as she held them in her palms, playing with them and blessing them, as if they were her own…
We were somewhat rattled with all the show of unexplained generosity towards her and as we stood there in a corner in silence, it as as if she could somehow smell the disbelief within us, and all the more in Fareed, as she sent for us.

As we stood in front of her, an apprentice signaled for us to bow. All of us, all except Fareed, bowed in front of her. The apprentice was infuriated at that. He constantly signaled for Fareed to bow and so did we but he refused to do so.
She observed Fareed, a dry smile perpetuated on her withered lips and she said something to him in their language.

“She says ‘I know what you want..'” the translator explained to Fareed.
She mumbled some more.
“It is answers that your heart looks for…”
Fareed eyed her with an odd sense of inquisitiveness.
“Answers to the existence of ‘her'”, explained the translator. ” Answers to immortality; to life and death, and all that there is in the middle..”
“You wish to learn the truth. ‘Her’ truth, the truth behind the stories of the demons and the witches. You look at her the same way you look at them. You wish to unite with her. You desire to see her, touch her with your bare hands, embrace her, kiss her, make love to her under the moonlight…”
“I can show you the way…”
Fareed raised his eyebrows. “Is it possible?”, he asked.
“Only if your heart in as cleansed as the rivers of Pardisus”, she said. “Tell me? Do you wish to see her? Do you wish to believe?”
Fareed pondered for a moment, then nodded. “Yes!”, he said with the eagerness of a schoolboy.
She clapped twice as an apprentice came before her and bowed. “Arrange for the ritual”, she said.

We reached the tree and gathered around it in a circle. In the centre, below the tree, sat the old woman behind the fire. She sprinkled a white powder into the flames as she sang something in her hoarse, shrill voice. The people had gathered around in a circle, just like they always did. Some of them played held bongos to the beat with a pair of limb bones. She called for Fareed towards the centre, right next to the fire. I was among the few who didn’t join in and just silently stood in a corner, observing the spectacle. Fareed stood in front of her as she sang to the beats of the bongos. The tribesmen danced around in circle, their painted faces, their tripping feet, moved to the rhythm of the beat, devouring in it, consumed by the fire that began to grow in the middle and the flames of the fire seemed to dance to the music as well.
Fareed observed all of this with his eyes full of fetish and questions. Eyes were transfixed to the tree, searching for the answers to the divinity that the tree concealed. He didn’t seem scared, just stunned!
The old preacher kept on singing the song as she sprinkled the white powder into the flames. The flames danced and grew as a choking amount of smoke filled up the atmosphere. Smoke that blinded the vision. Smoke that made the skies grayish. Smoke that filled up my lungs. Choking it. Cleansing it….
I coughed for some time as my vision blurred from the teardrops in my eyes. Fareed coughed too, but the woman didn’t. Nor did the rest of the tribesmen. She kept on singing the song. In that ethereal moment, as my vision hazed and my lungs longed for clean air, I could finally understand what she was singing about.

She sang about ‘her’. ‘Her’ powers. ‘Her’ majesty…..

She sang about the acacia tree, how the starving woman had reached the forest and had begged to the gods for food and shelter. The gods didn’t listen to her, but ‘she’ did. She had been moved by the prayers of a cleansed heart. She appeared before the woman and told him, “Shed the teardrop of a pure heart anywhere you want in this forest, and you shall never starve again…” She cried her drops of purity at the same Earth that now bore the acacia tree. The tree bore with it a fruit, the fruit of immortality, which when consumed once, would never let a man go hungry again ever in his life. And his life shall go on until the annihilation of the universe.

She sang about how a civilization established around that tree. A civilization that were the descendants of the starving woman. How the civilization had never starved once. And how they only had one divinity to thank for all of that.

She sang about sunlight and she sang about storms. She sang about humans and she sang about monsters…

She sang, calling for ‘her’, begging for her to come and answer to a heart that longs for answers, a desert that needs to be rained upon. She chanted a prayer, praising ‘her’ majesty and all she had done for them. She chanted a prayer for unification…
Large amount of smoke now consumed the vicinity and valiant winds had started to storm about. The winds shook the tree, ruffling and shuddering the leaves with it and it somehow it seemed that the tree was dancing to the music as well, waving about ecstatically in sheer rejoice of being acknowledged.

The old woman now grasped a handful of white and forced it down the flames. The pungent smoke had now started to fill up my lungs through the nostrils and as I choked and coughed, I noticed that Fareed wasn’t coughing at all. He stared at the tree as his head waved around in a circle to the music. He was smiling….

At that transient moment of haze it seemed to me that the old woman wasn’t an old woman at all. She was a young, beautiful maiden, who looked pale and dehydrated and starved…

Fareed opened his arms towards the tree as his head continued to wave to the music. The old woman again held a handful of the powder and mumbled and sang as she fed it to the flames.

I remember the fading music slowly dying away. I remember an incandescent white light that blinded my vision. I remember the skies, the colour of murk and I remember the violent winds…

And as the smoke withered away and vision was restored, I remember seeing the tribesmen, all of them, sitting in a circle facing the tree, bowing to it with their hands outstretched. There was no old woman sitting by the fire. There was no Fareed standing in front of the tree, arms wide open, trying to embrace ‘her’.

All that remained, was the little amount of smoke from a dying fire, lumps of burnt firewood and a pair of canvas shoes….


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