Single-Handedly

Sister’s Keeper

Behind a mass of silent green, two eyes, obsidian-black, stared out. A long bamboo shaft sat to the side. As the boy waited, a small rustle came to his intent ears. Eyes glanced upward. In the lower branches of a great teak near the edge of the clearing, a small, brown-black head twitched back and forth as its black eyes scanned for danger among the branches. Slowly, the predator lifted bamboo to mouth. The bush quivered, and the monkey above glanced momentarily down. Seeing nothing, it relaxed. The hollow reed was now brought into line with the tiny flank, and a hiss marred the jungle chatter. A moment later, a scream, and the tiny body fell to the ground.

Gathering his knife, the hunter leaped from his seat and hastened into the open to claim his prize. He glared this way and that, but none laid claim to his kill. Crouching next to the tiny form, he felt for the precious dart. Bony fingers finding it, he plucked the deadly sting from the monkey’s side. He stood with monkey in hand and retreated through the jungle growth.

When he reached a section of jungle that was to the eye no different from the rest, he stopped. He kept absolute silence until he found the right tree. Then, mounting a stick-and-rope ladder, his painted body disappeared into the foliage.

At a lofty platform he stood, and felt the warm, sticky breeze meet his face. Then he crouched, and lifted away a plank section. No less than a dozen monkeys were stowed beneath. He pulled these out one by one and covered the secret space. Taking in each hand a bundle of silky tails, he leapt into space. A concealed platform appeared beneath him, and he stepped from it onto a bamboo-planked bridge.

He walked to the rhythm of the sway underfoot and felt the up-and-down shiver of the bridge from end to end. Traveling a snakelike path among the leaves, he at last he came to a ladder up. He could hear a faint noise of men now, and his grim demeanor dissolved. He brought first six monkeys, then seven more, up the ladder; crossed two more bridges, and entered the warp and weft of the village.

He went immediately to the largest hut in the morass, where he unloaded his taking for the day. Other men were arriving at the same time, each dropping off several monkeys, and perhaps a tiny jungle-piglet; they shook their heads and muttered resignedly when they saw how much was brought by the boy. As the women began filling the hut, poking and prodding at the limp animals to see which contained the best meat, the boy tried to exit. One of the other men stopped him.

“Your father would be proud.”

The boy did not acknowledge him, but pushed into the evening and climbed home.

“Parakeet.” he called softly.

“You are home! Was there danger? Did you fight a panther?”

“No, no. No panther, but plenty of meat. We will eat well tomorrow. Why aren’t you down with the rest of the girls?”

“Why don’t you ever take me with you?” she countered.

“Because, little child, you are a girl. The jungle would eat you before you ate it. Hunting is a man’s job. Go to the spring if you want adventure. It’s close.”

“But the spring’s no fun anymore!”

“And why is that?”

“Because it used to spray and spray, and splash, and now it only gurgles.”

“Nonsense. It’s always been there. It’s not going to change.”

“But it has! It used to get the red rock wet and shiny, but now it’s not ever shiny. It looks ugly.”

“I’ll take you there tomorrow. We’ll see it together, and if you still hate it, you can find somewhere else nearby to play.”

“But I want to hunt!”

“No hunting. You’ll have to find something else.”

The next day, they rose with the first volley of birdcalls that struck the slowly opening morning. They made their way through the arboreal maze to a ladder that dropped down near the tribe’s spring.

His gaze fell upon the crystal pool. It’s spring ran lower. No longer the water-from-the-rock spewing vigorously forth, it was still flowing well.

“See? Everything is the same.”

“No it’s not! It doesn’t splash, and the rock’s not wet.”

“We had a dry summer, so it’s flowing a bit less,” he lied. “The rock only got wet from the splashing. The pool’s just as deep as ever.”

Still, just looking at the rock, he felt indignant at the change. Change didn’t happen. Change hadn’t happened since the Old Tales were first told.

Leaving his sister to play, he got up and almost mounted the ladder, but stopped. This time he would go among the bracken as he loved to. He could protect himself.

In the path of his skill, the jungle laid itself open. He passed through the tangle, a jungle fish in his native waters. Odd currents cut these waters. He saw cruel marks on his trees, and a path beaten carelessly across a trail held only in his mind. One end of it pointed to the plains, but the other aimed too near his village for comfort.

Noiselessly he walked this new path, this wound in his soul. Along its edge he saw a mass of spittle. The ruinous creatures had passed not long before; and soon, past a network of curare-vines split and torn through, he saw men walking.

He took to the hidden space beside their blaze, and stalked them as a lizard stalks an ant. Their raucous speech and haphazard swagger infuriated him. This was his range, which not even men of his own tribe dared approach. With their carelessness, the game would be gone for weeks. Slim hunting, if he kept to his usual prey.

The forest gloom began losing its transparency: soon these invaders would have to sleep. But when he thought they would need to retire among the trees, they persevered. Soon they were rewarded by a clearing with only scattered saplings. He cursed the light for allowing them to find his ambush ground.

One of their number set a small jar on the ground, twisted a protrusion on its side, and coated the area with a blinding yellow glare. The boy shrank in bewilderment. The sun was not lightly taken captive, but by powerful men. He fled thoughtlessly to the nearest ladder, and arrived at the village wild-eyed and gasping.

Before anyone saw him, he gathered himself. Talking to no one, he made his way up home. His sister was sleeping already when he entered, and he took care not to wake her as he lay down on his mat.

Out the window, he saw nothing but blackness, and a pale spot on the bark of some monstrous cork-oak showing that at least one moonbeam had managed to penetrate the canopy. He glared at it a while, angry that it felt leave to disturb his solitude. Slowly, the anger of the day focused on that spot of misplaced light. What right had it to change his night, even in its small part? Then, some benevolent unseen cloud blotted out the untoward brightness, and he slept.

When the night-silence broke just before dawn, the boy rose. He strode from the hut and took his blowgun and quiver from the peg outside the door. He kept to the trees today for speed, and after an hour’s search, looked down and saw his quarry. The men were not in sight, but a small fire pit had been dug, and lay smouldering, surrounded by numerous cloth-and-net tents. Making note of the position he had been too frightened the night before to notice, he moved on for his day’s hunt.

By noon, he was tired and thirsty. After taking his most recent kill to one of his cache-spots, he set for the spring. Once there, he paused. Silence. He looked at the spring, and slowly realized the incongruity of the silence. It merely trickled down the side of a boulder, and the pool was several inches lower than the day before. Like a wildcat on unfamiliar ground, he drank his fill and left.

Evening had nearly crept in by the time he began to return home with his taking of spider monkeys. He passed over the camp quickly, as he still felt a vague unease about their night-sorcery; but the low rays which meandered through his trees caught his eye, pulling it unwittingly downward. First in disbelief, then in a revival of the previous day’s rage, he dropped his catch on the bridge. Gripping the rope rail, he peered past the tents and at the fire. Roasting on a string was a pig. One of his pigs!

As he drew the blowgun from behind his back, he pulled a bamboo wasp from the quiver at his side. He took careful aim, there was a hiss, and a moment later — like so many monkeys and pigs before — a scream.

A grim joy overtook him as he flew towards the village. The intruders would leave; they would have to. No more scaring his game, trapping his sun, eating of his land. He would be triumphant. He stopped at his game-cache, and saw his sister running towards him on another bridge. She stopped at the edge of her platform, several feet from his.

“You’re back!” she cried gleefully.

“Yes, and look what I have.”

“Monkeys! Ooh, eight of them! And they’re big, too.”

“Yes, they are. Now, I’ll throw them across to you, since you’re here now. Ready for the first one?”

“No. I’ll come over there. I’ll help you take them across.”

“Oh, no you won’t. You can’t jump this far.”

“Yes I can. Watch me!”

She leapt.

“Parakeet!”

He watched her tiny body fall against a branch below, and so cushioned, fall more gently to the ground.

“Parakeet!”

He dropped the load of game onto the platform and nearly fell down the ladder in his haste.

“Oh, Parakeet, what did you do?”

He bore her body easily up the ladder and sadly walked home. He lay her down in their hut, but, unable to bear the sight of her twisted, though still living shape, left a midwife to care for her and walked off into the night. Unthinking, he found the spring and slept on a platform above it.

A new day broke, and he slept on. Finally waking, he took in his surroundings. The spring was still a mere trickle, and did not enter into the jungle noises. He rose and moved on to the invaders’ camp. He had forgotten blowgun and quiver in his haste the night previous; so when he was over them, he merely watched.

A tall, cadaverous man with a broad satchel knelt beside a fat man. The dead one. The boy’s victim. But the dead man was moving, moaning even! What power was this? To capture the sun and bring the dead back to life! He turned and ran.

The night was deep when he finally wandered into the village. He found his way home, and the midwife was still sitting up by the light of a tallow-lamp.

“She’s dead,” she said, not turning around.

His expression did not change, but he looked out the window and saw a moonbeam strike deeply-fissured cork; he let out an unearthly howl. The midwife shrank, and departed in silence. When she was gone, he covered his sister’s body, and disappeared into the jungle.

When he awoke, he was again near the spring. Little water was coming from the rock, and a green scum of algae had begun to form at the pool’s marge. Somehow this was all the doing of the invaders, the sorcerers. He sat in the dark behind some great trunks, sulking.

After some hours, he heard the crackle of footfall on leaves, and turned to see the cause. From his den, he watched the tall man approach the spring. The man pulled a bottle from the satchel slung over his shoulder, and knelt to fill it. The boy stared at the man, the one who would dare profane this water. As the man’s hand and bottle touched the surface, growing rage from the last few days flowed over. He tore from the shadows with a scream like one of his own prey. Rushing upon the man, he drew the knife at his side. The two rolled on the ground a moment, and then the boy gained advantage and threw the man from him. The man’s head met the red rock, and he slowly slid under the pool. Without even bothering to take the knife he had dropped in the struggle, the boy mounted the ladder and walked home.

His sister’s body was gone, but he spent days within the confines of her place of death. When he finally ventured forth, he went straight to the spring. It had stopped.

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