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Stories to Stir your Soul...


Dark gift of the gods - Denis BonnerGC



(I was born in Australia but have spent almost half my working life outside Australia, mostly in Western Europe. My life has been interestingly varied - from selling smuggled Turkish puzzle rings in the Paris Flea Market, to a leather shop/workshop in a seventeenth century building in Troyes (France), to maitre d' and occasional flambe cook in Sydney, and teaching English in Italy. Now I have changed again and do accounting work - that is so exciting that I am spurred on to write a great deal in my spare time! The most exciting trip I made was from Australia to Europe overland - at a time when it was still safe (relatively) to visit all the countries on the way.Some years ago I decided the only real purpose I see for all this experience is writing, so I have been writing on and off over the past decade or so. Mostly it has been fantasy of one kind or another. - Dennis Bonner)


I

It was the last hour of the day, the sun slipping gently towards the sea, the sky already darkening. At the water's edge, three figures wearing flashing faceted sun-masks cavorted wildly around a bright fire on the sand, white robes flapping. Drums thudded a frenetic rhythm. This was the danse mukkubra - the dance of death. As they danced they chanted, staring out to sea, towards the setting sun. And the chant had for refrain but two words – monjer dum, Eater of Souls.

Further back on the beach among the palm trees, scarcely discernible in the gathering gloom, the dark skinned islanders stood in a huddle, wailing mournfully and beating their chests.

The girl watched the prets as their dance came to an end. The funeral boat was already prepared. Not one of the flimsy vessels the prets normally used, but the smallest of the lateen rigged outrigger canoes. The tiller lashed in position, the red painted sail full stretched, it bobbed and tugged at the fibre rope that held it anchored to the beach.

The decorated gourd of fresh water and the palm leaf wrapped packages of food were there. For the dead to eat during the journey to the Land of the Dead, the girl supposed. She looked around, taking in every detail of the scene. She was ten years old, so she had seen this ceremony often enough. Though she had never before found herself watching it with such intense personal interest.

The edge of the sun’s disc touched the horizon, the wailing of the watching islanders ceased, and the prets began their wind chant, the spell that called up the Vondwest – the wind that would blow the little vessel out to sea, into the sun.

Yes, the girl had seen this all before, but this time it was different – completely different. The difference was not only the boat. What made the event so frighteningly personal was that she was in the boat.

It all began with her birth. Over the years she had pieced together the facts from scraps of part-heard conversations; remarks the adults whispered, furtively, when they thought she wasn't about; the mutterings of her parents when she was presumed to be asleep.

When her mother knew her time was near she had sent for the midwife. Night time, the interior of the little hut lit dimly by a smoky cooking fire. The baby was small, the birthing easy. The midwife held the new-born out for the mother to take. Came a bright ruddy flash that momentarily illuminated every detail of the interior of the hut, followed almost immediately by the angry growl and rumble of the erupting volcano on the next island. Darkness again, and with it the fearsome whooshing of the wall of water that rushed across at their island, sweeping across the beach and foaming right up amongst the palm thatched huts, carrying with it the smallest of the outriggers beached on the shore. Dumping it right outside the hut where the new mother was now turning her head to get her first look at her child. Mother and midwife stared down into the baby girl's dark face at the same moment.

"Mbakara!" The mother drew back in sudden fright making the sign that wards against evil.

And so she was named.

It was a lonely childhood. Always little Mbakara was left to play alone. Often she was to be seen up on the wind blown cliff tops. She went there every day when the gull chicks were newly hatched, crouching among the seagulls' nests, staring at their young. Wishing that she too would one day be able to spread her wings and fly - away. The chicks screamed desperate defiance at her. Like the children, she thought. Screeching as they fled, hiding from her, shunning her.

It was hard when your very name meant 'demon'. But she never cried. She took a certain stubborn pride in that.

As she grew older she took to chasing the children. Eventually she caught one. One of the boys. Tussled him to the ground, demanded to know why they always ran. He twisted his face away, wouldn't look at her, whimpered "Because you can't see."

"Of course I can see," she said. Pudgy black finger prodding, "There, your knees." Poke. "There, your chest." Jab. "There, your silly woolly head." Tap tap. "Of course I can see."

"How?" he squealed. "You got no eyes! Demon!" wrenched from her grasp and fled blubbering.

For the first time in her life Mbakara consciously ran her hands over her face. Neat round ears, plump cheeks, full lips, straight nose and - where there should have been eyes...only empty sockets. But she could see!

No-one knew how to explain this mystery. No-one wanted to talk about it, certainly not her parents. So she found her own answer – not one the prets would have approved of. It was quite simply a gift of the gods, to be able to see without even having any eyes.

Then this morning the prets had come for her.

II

On the beach a final triumphant shout as the prets completed their spell. The boat was cast off – the Vondwest had been summoned. The red sail billowed, the small craft bobbed and raced across the bay, dancing through the gap in the reef, out to the open sea.

Mbakara stared back at the island as the prets' fire became an ever diminishing patch of shimmering brightness before winking out entirely. Good-bye, not'tair, land of my birth. Farewell jon d'tair, my people. But there was little regret. There had been no happiness, no love. No understanding. She turned her back on the island and faced the dying sun, saw how its light had turned the sea blood red. And now there was nothing but sea, whichever way she looked.

Then the unexpected. The enchanted wind dropped, the red sail hanging slack until banks of black clouds scudded across the horizon, blotting out the sun, bringing a premature night. The east wind swooped down on the outrigger which spun and flew back towards the islands it had so recently left. It sailed past them, or so Mbakara supposed, and on and on into the blackness of the night.

By morning the storm had blown itself out and she found herself sailing into the rising sun. The thought crossed Mbakara's mind that the Land of the Dead had rejected her because she was alive. But where she was going to end up now she couldn't begin to imagine.

The last crumb of food was gone, the final gulp of water done little more than moisten her parched throat, long before land appeared once more on the horizon. Before she realised what that distant line of darkness meant, Mbakara thought it was perhaps the edge of the world.

It was not. It was the great continent of Bimana, and she made landfall on the shores of the southernmost land, which is known as Eigne.

The surf pushed the outrigger onto a gravelly beach and Mbakara tumbled out. She was too exhausted to even think of dragging the boat further from the water and as she lay there a larger wave caught it up and snatched it back into the sea.

"By Tiv and Catha, what's this then?" exclaimed a voice. Mbakara squinted up to see a blue-eyed sunshine-haired man with skin so pale she thought him a ghost. He looked into her face and said more unknown words before stooping and offering his hands to help her up.

A little way from the shore they came to his hut and from the nets strung outside she knew he was a fisherman.

The Eignish fisherman and his dark-eyed wife cared for Mbakara. Little by little she learnt the rudiments of their language. The fact that she could see although she had no visible eyes didn't seem to worry them. Speaking about her survival of the voyage from not'tair and the terrible storm, the woman said simply:

"Nortia protected you."

"Who is Nortia?" Mbakara asked.

In answer the fisherman's wife had led her to a nearby grove where there was a shrine studded with nails. "Nortia - the goddess of Destiny." She explained, "Nortia holds us all in her hands just as Turms always guides my husband back to shore with a good catch of fish."

Mbakara nodded, the jon d'tair too worshipped many gods. So she understood, though she did wonder which particular deity might be responsible for her miraculous sight.

It was two moons later by the girl's count that she felt it was time to move on. If the gods had indeed saved her from the sea and given her sight, it was not so she could sit around by the beach doing nothing.

The woman gave her one of her own hand-woven woollen kilts and a thick jerkin. The fisherman presented her with a staff and a strip of cloth long enough to bind over her eye-less sockets. Not everyone, he explained, would treat her with the same understanding.

Mbakara did not comprehend until she saw her first blind man. She felt such pity for him. Then she realised the fisherman and his wife were right: most people distrust what they don't understand. So it was as a blind beggar that she began her travels around Eigne.

Mbakara encountered the minstrel in a busy market, quite by chance. Though later in her life she refused to believe that there was any such thing as chance.

She was tap-tapping her way along a cobbled street when she heard the singing. She threaded her way through the stalls, following the sound of the voice. The song ended just as she arrived and there was silence as she approached the little crowd gathered around the man. Then he began to sing again, and the girl stopped, quite astonished: for not only was the singer black, she understood the words of his song. She also saw immediately that he was blind.

From time to time he turned his head in her direction as if aware of her presence, and when he had finished his song Mbakara asked immediately in her native tongue:

"How did you get here?"

"I walked." There was amusement in his voice.

"But that is impossible." Mbakara was confused. "You can't walk on water," she faltered, not sure what else she could say.

"But you come from an island, and I come from the woods of Vandemonie in the far north of Bimana," the singer explained, smiling broadly.

The girl approached. "Why the stick?" he asked, "when you can see?"

"How can you know? How can you tell where I come from and that I can see?" She was totally bewildered.

"I have good ears. You move with the assurance that only the sighted have. Also," he added, "you speak Vandee with the accent of the Western Isles." Then he stepped towards her, "If you will permit me...?" and he reached out and ran his hands over her face, mapping her features. When his fingers discovered her eye sockets, he said, awed, "This is the work of the gods." He took a step back. "You are alone?" He made it a statement.

Mbakara nodded, grinned to herself, said "Yes." Explained, "They sent me away."

"And you speak some Eignish?"

"A little bit," she replied in that language.

He stood, thoughtful, one hand resting on her shoulder. So young, so vulnerable, with this strange god-given ability. Wise indeed to cover her eye-less sockets. But how could she survive here, now her own people had cast her out? He made a sudden decision.

"If you sing a little, and can remember new words, I will teach you my trade."

So it was that the Vandean minstrel known throughout Bimana as Nessun de la Forray took the black islander Mbakara as his apprentice.

He taught, she learnt. They sang together, travelled together and laughed together. They were the happiest times Mbakara had ever known.

It all came to an end as she was approaching her eleventh year. One day as she and the minstrel stood on the banks of a river, Mbakara announced abruptly -

"Nessun, I must go north."

"Why? I thought we had decided to go south to the capital for the Harvest Festival of Furflun."

"I can't go. I don't know why. I know only that I must go north. Now." She looked at the minstrel miserably. "Something calls me. And I can no longer ignore it." She sighed. "You are my friend. The only friend I have ever had. I don't want to leave you."

"I think I understand." Nessun nodded slowly. "The gods ask you to pay the price of your gift."

"Perhaps this is so." She hugged him. "Dear Nessun," she said, "one day we will meet again."

"I cannot doubt it."


III

So Nessun travelled alone to the Festival of Furflun, and Mbakara went north following the river and her call.

At first it was strong but not insistent. The further north she travelled the louder in her mind, the more imperious on her will, became the summons. She travelled for days and still that mysterious something tugged unrelenting at her mind.

As she trudged along the banks of the broad river, she searched for a place to cross. Ahead she saw a hillside, bare and rocky, that she decided, despite her weariness, to climb. For she had not yet seen bridge or ford or ferry.

From the top of that rocky outcrop she looked out over all the surrounding countryside. The river swept around in a wide loop and directly below a boat was moored to a rough wooden jetty. On the far side of the river she could see a settlement - at that distance there was no mistaking it: this was the place that drew her.

She was gazing at this collection of huts - poor places, roughly thatched wattle and daub, most of them, and a smithy smoking by the riverbank - when her vision clouded and ... there was another township superimposed on that small settlement. An impossible bridge now spanned the river, and there were many more houses, such as she had never seen, with windows all aglitter, and a great stone building with a tower.

Before the ferryman saw her she knotted the fisherman's cloth securely over her eyes and once again used her staff as the blind do.

The ferryman helped her aboard and cast off. As he rowed Mbakara across the fast-flowing river in his flat-bottomed coble, she asked him the name of the place.

"They call it Coble Hill" he told her, grinning as he pulled strongly on his oars. "Nowhere else you can cross, by Alpan and Evan, upstream or downstream, not for a good many days' journey."

She stepped off the boat – stumbled, disoriented, crying out in shocked horror. For darkness had engulfed her and she was truly blind. The world about her had gone, vanished. Ghostly figures moved all around her, surrounded her, yet ignored her, could not see her.

She could not shut the visions out. "Help me!" her voice a croak.

A voice, faint. A touch. Reality. Friendly hands that took her hands, directed her, sat her down, gave her water to drink. She calmed. Looked around. Looked around? Gazed upon this dream world. Watched, listened. By all the gods, it was a world of sorcerers. Then she understood: this is what called me. Now I have to tell the people in Coble Hill what is happening here.

Faintly now she could hear the voices of the present time people surrounding her. She held onto that thought. I am here. I am Mbakara. Said - too loudly perhaps:

"I am Mbakara the singer, but today I sing you no songs. Today I have a story to tell... "

And now she had announced that she would tell the story, the place sucked her in, into a whirling, swirling tunnel...of time? - for it certainly didn't feel like now.

Scenes presented themselves to her, and she described them as best she could. It made no sense. Too much was happening. More, there was the shock of her blindness...of the real world vanishing...the fear of being trapped here, in this dream world...forever – and so much of what she saw she couldn't begin to understand.

Mbakara saw sights no-one had ever seen, tried to explain them: mighty magicians who killed with sound; who flew in the air inside stiff winged birds; who spoke to each other across immense distances; saw things that were happening far away...

Then, exhausted, she slept. Awake, she was unsurprised to find she was still there, continued her tale, voice hoarse, as the images flowed on unrelenting. Unseen hands fed her, reassured her.

Then at last the tale was done, and she found she could see the real world once again. Relieved beyond belief, exalted by her experience, she sang as she had never sung before. No words, just a song as joyous as the lilting warble of the first thrush of spring.

Coble Hill was in a hubbub. Never had there been such a story as this little blind black girl had told. And the villagers retold each other the parts they had liked the best. Some recounted the exploits of the Hero with his enchanted sword, who had put to flight entire armies. Others dwelt on the beauty of the disinherited princess, told each other angrily of the brutal slaying of her parents by the evil usurper. Still others spoke of the magical Necklet of power with which a person could rule over all of Eigne...

Village life resumed. The people of Coble Hill discovered that their storyteller was a minstrel of no little talent, and despite her blindness she was soon able to find her way about the village with awesome ease.

And Mbakara? Mbakara remembered when the story had released her, how briefly she had felt an awareness of all those stories out there, in so many places in Bimana. Stories of events that would happen. They were waiting for her. A sea of stories, a tidal wave of tales. And she imagined being led – forced? – from place to place to place, condemned to tell all those not-yet stories. Living her life with one foot in the real world and one foot in the future.

If this was, as Nessun had suggested, payment for her vision of the present, it was indeed a dark gift that the gods had given her.



**********

The Continent of Bimana


Beauforton - capital of Vandemonia, heavily forested, in the north east;

Castle Crag - capital of Eigne, in the south; a rich farming land;

Limona - capital of Bezonia, an arid land in the south east;

Ormolu - capital of Zoloto, a desert land centre east;

Weltbrücke - capital of Peloria - which stretches from the North West (forested) to the northern boundary of Eigne (prairie);

Nepholia (the mountain plateau in the centre of the continent) has no designated capital.

Borders are not shown as they have altered over the centuries

***********
Denis Bonner
318 Wilson Street
Darlington NSW 2008
bacchus[at]telpacific[dot]com[dot]au

2 Comments:

At 7:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Bimana in reference to a term applied by Georges Cuvier to man as a special order, that of a mammal with two hands?
Just curious.

 
At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Denis said...

Exactly. See if you can work out the significance of the names of the countries.

 

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