“Every story has its time, and sometimes, when the timing is right, in the telling of it, it reveals a purpose otherwise hidden within the heart of the story………you see, many years have passed since the events I am about to recount here took place, and the time has come to pass this story on – the way of the world has spun it so. But, what am I thinking – please forgive my rudeness and indulgence, and let me introduce myself……..
“My name is…….well, lets just say that at the outset of this story that it was Chenge…….these days I am known by a different name amongst my people, and this story also reveals how my name came to change. But, I am known to all in my village as a ‘rememberer’, a member of the Fire clan, a dreaming diviner carrying the ancestral stories and traditions. Amongst the people divining, storytelling and tradition are three threads of an intimately woven single strand within the great cloth of Life, and, through our own journeys, we each partake in its weaving.
“Divining always happens at the confluence of tradition and change. So, this is also the story of endings and beginnings, of the places where old and new trails overlap, a journey within which the worlds merge into each other, and, in so doing, keep the flame at the heart of the traditions alive. It is also a tale that recounts how I found my own path, with the help of two very special people, Grandfather Ake and my mentor Pemba……two of the most deeply respected diviners in many a generation. That respect was partly gained through the high degree of their divining skills, but, it was also won through the individual genius of their own ways, their ability to not only work in partnership with ‘the invisible’, but, to do so invisibly! That in itself was often a challenge to us all……which earned them a different kind of respect….but, through it they also fulfilled their own roles, as guardians of the entire village.
“You see, at the point where this story begins, in all our time together, Pemba, as my mentor, had never given me direct instructions in the diviner’s skills. That, he said, was knowledge reserved for initiation, but, as I soon discovered, he had, unbeknownst to me, been teaching me them all along, such was his way. And, at this particular time in my journey his teachings suddenly became poigniant, their values tested, in ways that none of us could ever have imagined……..it had all begun one summers night, many moons ago now, with a dream……..”
“A great storyteller’s breath is filled with the voices of the spirits…….their voice is a spirit river that sweeps up all who hear it and carries them through the lands of the inner worlds towards that ancestral meeting place where all the words that have ever been uttered and ever will be uttered are gathered in the ocean of our souls……this is your heritage little brother”
His eyes glistened, black impenetrable pools of ancient light, as Grandfather beckoned me closer and, looking off towards some far distant place beyond the horizons of this world, in a voice made gentle and powerful with age, softly delivered his parting words……
“…..and if you go to stand at the shores of that great ocean and listen, you will hear the sound of all the people’s joys and suffering, and your own life will be healed, made whole.”
…….and then came the silence, a sustained molten silence that morphed and changed with every heartbeat, condensing, sliding ever more into solidity, as if embalming time in eternity – the silence of one whose breath has stilled.
My eyes opened with a start! And, immediately, I knew……..leaping from my sleeping place and calling out his name ” Papa Ake, Papa Ake”, I ran through the darkness and crashed into the arms of my waiting father who was standing guard at the entrance to grandfather’s compound. He had gone, and through the crushing ache of my young tears I understood that he had come to me in my dream to say goodbye, just as he was casting off, towards the far horizons of that mysterious ocean.
A young mind can only comprehend so much, but, we get it all with the heart.
Many times I had sat with the elders in the men’s circle, as they traded visions drawn from their experiences in life, the privilige of the very young and the very old. They, seemingly wrapped up in their sage pontificating and ruthless leg-pulling while I, turning small beetles on their backs and letting their flailing legs hook onto my fingers, imagined the old ones to be a grove of whispering trees under whose ancient boughs the dappled sunlight of my own imagination was allowed to dance wild and free.
It is only now, in the fifty sixth year of my journey along the rough tracks of a world very different from the one familiar to my grandfather, that I realise the greater significance of this memory. But, such events are also catalysts, and…..
…..three days later, amidst the grieving that had overtaken our village and given rise to a full traditional funeral, grandfather, Papa Ake, through a simple gesture executed with the devotion of the elders, made sure I never forgot those parting words, that dream treasure.
It was in the midst of the second evening of the funeral and I was sitting beneath the old desert cypress that Papa Ake had affectionately named ‘Grandmother’. Papa Ake’s body had been interred, his ancestral totem shaped and consecrated. The elders were arriving back at their circle when Guino, the headman and chief elder, came over to the massive old tree. I had been thinking of the many times that grandfather had reeled off the lineages of our rootstock in the sweet humble tones of an ancient melody as we sat beneath her boughs. Stooping under the branches and reaching out with his fat, strong hands, Guino pulled me out of my thoughts and, announcing that the elders wished to speak with me, led me and my innocence into the night towards the opalescent ruby embers that sat chattering in the fire-pit at the center of the elder’s circle.
As I came to the edge of the circle I could see that all the storytellers and healers were there – only the face of old Pemba, my grandfather’s closest friend and strongest ally, appeared to be missing. Guino bid me sit at his left side where there was a gap occupied by an Oryx tail whisk that I recognised as Pemba’s. I looked hesitantly around the circle, trying to see if any of the other children were present. The creased leathery faces of the elders glowed back at me from beneath their bushy eyebrows and unkempt beards and I lowered my gaze, embarrassed by the realisation that, not only was I the only child present, but, that everyone was looking at me. Someone racked their throat and spat. I looked up in time to see Pemba entering the circle carrying something cradled in both hands. He came over towards me, glancing briefly towards the chief and, releasing one hand to pick up and move his Oryx whisk to one side, turned to sit down, folding his legs under himself and bringing the mysterious object to rest in his lap. Guino’s voice made me jump – he was speaking directly to me!
“We have called you here this night little brother for two reasons. The first is to pass into your hands something that has come down through your family over many generations and which was held, in his time, in the safekeeping of our brother Ake. The second is to give back to you something that, while it has never truly been taken from you, still belongs to you, and only to you, and which has been kept in safekeeping by our brother Pemba since you were but six moons old in your mother’s womb”
Guino paused and cleared his throat. I looked at him in stunned anticipation since I knew he had said that I was about to receive something, two things in fact, but had not a clue as to what they could be. He smiled and spoke to the circle while still looking at me….
“hmmm – this is the boy we have come to know as Chenge, Forest Cat, since this is the totem that Pemba divined for you at your birth and which has been your talisman and protector since that moment, but, this night…..you will receive your right-full name, which you spoke to us as a spirit child before you entered this world”.
He paused again as if making up his mind and then said, “this ancestral gift you know”, at which point Pemba leaned towards me and, unwrapping the dark speckled skin from around the object in his lap, revealed the familiar tan and mahogany coloured patterning of grandfather’s divining bag – “it is now yours”. Pemba came a little closer, proffering the bag with a tender smile – he creased up his eyes as he gave a little nod and passed it into my now outstretched arms.
I had never held it before and was surprised at how heavy the divining bag was, but, it was the feeling of familiarity that completely washed over me and held me spellbound in that moment. An excitement welled up in my belly – I felt a warm tingling rush spread from my feet right up to the top of my head and then enfold itself around me, descending back down to the earth beneath me.
The fire suddenly came to life with a crackling and popping as a murmur of approval rippled around the circle of old men.
“Good, good” said Guino and he cleared his throat again while glancing over my head and nodding towards Pemba.
I looked to my left at the short wirey man who sat next to me. I knew him well, for all of my nine years, for he had been my guardian and mentor since birth, and we had spent many hours walking and studying the natural world around us. But, as I looked at his kind old face with its tuft of whispy beard below his chin and the sparkling black sapphires that were his eyes, I realised that there was something different, as if another face were vaguely visible simultaneously with his own. His eyes suddenly looked hawk-like into my own and I heard his voice, emerging as if from within myself, saying…..
“Ake Culutanta – ‘Long Memory of the Storytellers’ – this shall, from this moment, be returned to you as your right-full name and we shall call you by it – just as your grandfather before you was known to us as Ake Timanu – ‘Long Memory of the Ancestors’ – with this ancestral gift your road is now opened”.
He gesticulated towards the bag that I had forgotten was nestling in my lap, so overcome was I with the magnitude of these discoveries. For, in that moment, I remembered and tasted the deep running groundwater of the ancestral souls whose essence had coarsed through me just moments before – was this what grandfather had been telling me about in the dream? For the first time in this life I knew that taste, and recognised it.
Somewhere a group of drummers had started up, sending a slow asymetrical pattern of deep base notes vibrating across the night air – swift flurries of clipped fizzing rim-shots picked up the rhythm. A sudden burst of ululations and cries from the grieving women gave a sharp tug at my belly and reminded me that we were still helping grandfather navigate back to the ancestral compound where he would be greeted with tear-filled hugs and joyous cries as the ancients danced around the eternal fire at the centre of their village. I had not noticed the rhythmic clapping and swirling sound of the elder’s voices until it slowly emerged from the background of my reveries. They were quietly chanting a song I had not heard before, one that I later learned was reserved for the boys initiation circle. But, I now know, there were also occasions when events cut across tradition and demanded the presence of the spirit at the centre of the song – events such as those unfolding now in the elder’s circle. It was a song used for teaching in trance and, ruffling the feathers of my half dreaming mind, it span me into a softly collapsing vortex. The last thing I remember was Pemba holding my face very close to his and whispering something about handling the divining bag. He was speaking as if it were a living thing, a wild animal with a will of its own. I remember feeling both scared and excited as the song took effect, Pemba covering me with his blanket of earthy red wool as I drifted slowly into the oblivion of a dreamless sleep.
I thought I could hear grandfather’s voice emerging like a deeply buried memory from long ago – I could see his voice flowing towards me in filaments of fine golden thread and had the feeling he was trying to tell me something about his death.
“……the thread of life has no beginning and no end, grandchild”, his voice drifting in the shimmering mist of a golden web, “this is the end of one journey and the beginning of another, but…..the journey never ends……if you follow the thread, younger brother…..”
He had once told me that barely an eye-blink separated the living from the dead, and I now know with absolute certainty the truth behind these vision spun words. For, that night was truly the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Life and death are seamlessly interwoven and the death of Papa Ake stands like a sentinel in the midst of my memories. All the events that followed swung inexorably around that moment. For, he had not been taken by death, but, had chosen his moment, colluding with the great gatekeeper in a well anticipated plan. His words were strangely comforting, but, how much had he and Pemba foreseen? Papa Ake’s departure had drawn back the bowstring and this night I had been launched like the proverbial arrow towards a future surely no-one could have anticipated. Yes, he must have known that I would open the bag and that this would be the catalyst, but, had he really known what would emerge from that bundle of deep mysteries…..?
I barely seemed to have closed my eyes before I was awoken and the first thing that came into my mind was that something was about to happen.
It was very dark and I felt tense. The grief cries of the women had long given way to the intimate quiet of the village as it settled into its journey towards the dawn. With my head resting on the soft leather of the divining bag, I lay on my back near the elder’s fire and surveyed the shimmering starlight, listening. The cold night air seemed to pull the darkness of the star speckled sky down to earth, but, I was warm beneath Pemba’s blanket. I had that feeling that I was suspended above a vast nocturnal ocean and that if I just turned I might find grandfather at my shoulder – he seemed so nearby and a part of him seemed to be waiting. In the elder’s circle I had sensed his encouragement to take up my inheritance, now, however, I could not shake a pensive gut feeling. I pondered the instructions that Pemba had given me, to sleep with the divining bag for forty nights, to let the bag call me and, when it did, to do its bidding. I so much wanted to look inside, but, something was holding me back – perhaps the same thing that grandfather was waiting for. I asked him for help. A shooting star lit up the night sky and I sat up – “come closer – come, come”. I reached behind me. The bag seemed to have become heavier and grown larger – grandfather used to say that he kept all his stories in that bag and I hesitated briefly, wondering if some of mine might find their way in there as well, simply by laying my head upon it. Perhaps they had already begun! With this thought I instantly felt encouraged and found myself leaping to my feet.
The glow from the fire-pit pulled me and, crouching by the orange light of the embers, I planted the divining bag firmly between my feet, took a deep breath and began unwinding the leather strap that had been carefully bound around its neck. Slowly the soft leather opened and I peered inside. Instantly I froze, sensing a movement in the shadows – had I been found out?!. Startled, I looked up and saw a flash of brilliant blue light run down an invisible thread that seemed to be hanging in the air…….’follow the thread….’
Looking back on this moment I now realise that, had I been but a few years older, had I had the knowledge that our traditional initiation brings, I might have reacted quite differently, but, in that moment I did not stop to think……Papa Ake had chosen his timing well to deliver his message, and, in so doing, open the pathway to a wholy different kind of initiation. The thread of light was slowly drifting in the air, and I watched in fascination as it floated away towards the forest at the edge of the village. Quickly securing it with its strap I gathered up the divining bag and rose to my feet, just in time to see the luminous thread appearing to dissolve into the darkness where the pathway from the village entered the trees. Without hesitation, I followed…..
The edge of this forest is deeply sacred to my people. This is the place where the elders stoop to feel the earth and, whispering to the forest guardians, make offerings and ask permission to enter. But, this memory brings an uncertainty with it – in my haste I have overlooked this protocol and realise that I have nothing to offer, save the divining bag and its mysterious contents, and, even though the bag has been passed down to me I know that it is not yet truly mine to give from. Anyway, to do so feels like I would be breaking taboo, one that would not escape the attention of the ancestors – their graves are enshrined in the caves that pit the great escarpment on the other side of the trees. I look around, searching for something that will speak to me and tell me how to proceed, but, am met with the dark eyes of deepening shadows, and the feeling that it is I that am being watched. A shiver runs through me…….even in daylight this is a place of concealement and veiled entrances.
Looking back to the village I am reassured a little, knowing that, if I do enter the forest I can always run back to the safety of the fireside. Grandfathers words echo in my mind again, ‘follow the thread, younger brother……’
I know that Grandfather Ake would not lead me on a broken path and, making up my mind, I turn and slowly enter the forest…….
This is the borderland of my ancestors, that every child is introduced to immediately following their birth. Grandfather had told me that in this way we close the circle between the living and the dead, letting the ancestors know that we had arrived safely on our journey from their realms, the spirit lands. He had instructed me in the wisdom of this, saying it was necessary to make sure that the circle of life remained unbroken, so that we can remain open to the flow of news and guidance, the dialogue that passes between our worlds. He had said that this was a place in which the boundaries between these worlds dissolved – it is where the spirits come to meet with us, where trees shroud the gathering slopes at the foot of the escarpment in a thick felted coat of shadows, cloaking the land in an atmosphere of watchfullness, the presence of another world, their world…….listening intently, my every footfall a whisper to the hidden ones who live here, I tread more carefully as the trees close about me.
Crouching low under the first veil of trees I turn and listen. Insects and distant night-birds call against the backdrop of a deepening silence. There is no one following. The air is still, turning warmer and heavier as I venture inwards. I slowly feel my way, small stones and twigs beneath my bare soles. Although I have been here before under the tutilage of Pemba and Grandfather it was always in daylight – at night this place is entirely different. The forest feels like it is shifting in and out of this world and I struggle to remember the way. I stop by an old thorn tree and rest my hand on the rough bark. From the very corner of my vision something catches my eye, a feint movement. Keeping my body still I swivel my head slightly to look, and there it is, a sliver of dark rainbow light hovering in the air. A thread of irridescence slides through the darkness and following it my eyes come to rest upon a spider who immediately turns and runs up the thread she is hanging by…..I can hear Pemba’s voice saying ‘still your mind and listen’…..
I now feel certain that I am being watched…..and yet, I do not feel afraid. This is a kindly presence. The spider has stopped at the edge of her web, and, I have the strangest feeling that it is she who is looking at me…….’remember’……I shake my head – I could have sworn I had heard a voice, her voice, right next to me, whispering in my ear. The spider enters her web, heading straight for the center and then, just before she reaches its heart, she turns to her left and, after stopping again for a moment, as if she is following a hidden pathway around its strands, she climbs round the circle of silk to a point where she is level with its center. There, she turns once more and enters the heart of the web…..I am mesmerised. Now she seems to be doing a little dance, carefully rotating moonwise at its the center until she stops again, facing downwards….again, I have the uncanny feeling that she is watching me, as if waiting for me to acknowledge her. I nod my head and, after putting my hand on my heart, extend my palm out towards her, the traditional gesture of friendship……’remember’….
Now, all of a sudden I understand…..as I watch her thoughts come flooding in, spinning an invisible spiralling web of memories, that pulls me upwards, and without warning the vision bursts open with a loud pop!
I sit up just in time to see a flurry of sparks spiralling up towards the luminous sky above. After a moments confusion I realise that I have been dreaming, but, the spider’s message remains echoing within, seeming for all the world to be weaving itself amongst the specks of fiery light dancing amongst the stars, a solitary cloud drifting across the deep expanse above. A sudden breath of wind blows the sparks off towards the edge of the village and, entranced by their dance, I follow them with my gaze until I find myself looking towards the edge of the forest, just as I had seen it in my dream, to where the path enters the trees. There on the edge of the forest I can see a figure…..or can I……it looks for all the world like Grandfather…..he is gesturing to me to follow. But, as I look, without moving he dissolves into the night before my eyes…….I am hesitant, but, wrapping the blanket around me, carefully slinging the strap of the diviner’s bag around my shoulder. I feel certain that I must head once more for the edge of the forest, even though the apparition has left me with a strange and uncanny feeling in my belly. But, just as I am about to leave I notice a gourd with a stopper in its neck sitting on the ground, right next to the place where I had rested my head……I know what I must do.
Entering under the first trees, where the forest feels as if it is bounded by an invisible barrier, I kneel down and touch the earth, and, taking the stopper out of the gourd, carefully tilt it, sprinkling water into my hand – letting it slowly trickle to the ground the words come of their own accord……
“oh my Ancestors, I come in deep gratitude for guiding me to your doors, I bring you this water in peace, that you may be nourished…….I ask that a pathway may be opened for me to enter here…..”
The forest sighs in with a subtle voice and, as I rise to my feet…..it feels as though the path is welcoming me. Above, stars are slowly being extinguished as a covering of clouds begins to gather. The way has become very dark. I remember the thorn tree and, finding my way by memory more than sight, come to her familiar shadow. As I approach and lay my hand upon her rough bark, just as I had in the dream, I look around for the spider’s web…..but, I cannot see it. At that moment the entire forest is lit up with brilliant silvery blue luminescence as the fulling moon emerges from behind a cloud, and there it is, the silken web rippling with otherworldly moonlight – but, the spider is nowhere to be seen…..Pemba’s voice echoes in my mind, ‘still your mind and listen’. And as I do so the memories of his teachings come back to me, just as the spider’s voice had spun its web of thoughts in my dream.
Pemba was known far and wide for his divining skills, but, he had a particular speciality as a diviner that fascinated me, once I found out about it. It was something I had on occasion pestered him to teach me, without success, or so I had thought – he knew how to read the webs of forest spiders. He would say that there were messages in those silky patterns, that it was the web that spun the spider, ‘and so it is with us’, he used to say. This was his diviner’s knowing, the upside down, inside out way he said we could be touched by the world, just as it was in the beginning. It is a knowing that, I have come to realise, is beyond value…..and in that moment I got it. It was all in the spider’s dance!
I quickly unstop the gourd and make an offering of water to grandmother spider – and, extending my hand from my heart once more towards her web, without a shadow of doubt in my mind now, turn and set off on the path towards the caves.
The escarpment is a rippling sea of deep blue shadows ahead of me, reaching up to the blackening sky between the trees as the pathway leads me through the labyrinth of boulders towards its base. Here is the stairway of steps cut into the stone, their treads worn smooth from the feet of my ancestors who have passed this way before me. Tucking the gourd safely beneath the diviners bag and the blanket I climb upwards until, clearing the canopy of trees, a swift moving breath of air ruffles the fine hairs on the back of my neck. I suddenly become fully aware of what I am doing. Yet, something in me has changed and I no longer so feel afraid. The childs fears that had been present in the dream and accompanied me into the forest are fading and, for the first time in this life, I realise that I might have begun to follow the thread of my own path. A sudden feeling of exhiliration wells up in me and spurs me on……
Reaching the first level where a narrow ledge runs across the cliff face, I turned to sit a moment near the top steps and look out over the tree tops back towards the village. There is no sound below, all is quiet, almost too quiet. The plain reaches out towards the horizon bathed in a brooding light, silent islands of shifting luminousity slowly drifting across its silvery nocturnal sea of grass, dotted with great trees. Far off towards the darkened horizon a part of the sky is suddenly illuminated with the fierce dance of the lightening spirits, and, after holding my breath for what seems like an eternity, the silence is rent open by a booming wave of thunder. I must make haste, yet, I suddenly feel as if I am arriving home and, awash with wonder at the world beneath me, turn to climb the last few steps and peer over the lip of the ledge.
Scanning the ledge to either side, all seems still – but, beneath the overhanging cliff above this natural platform there is an impenetrable darkness. I decide to wait a moment to allow my eyes to become accustomed to the light. The openings in the cliff-face are deep eyeless sockets holding untapped visions of the ancient night, starless and primordial. I know I must move on – the ancestors are watching. Stilling my mind once again to remember I turn to the left and, crouching low, hurry now past the ancient caves and round a shoulder of rock that buttresses the overhang. Scanning the rockface, I find a gash in the stone at shoulder height and, hooking my hand in, pull myself up. Above there is a series of shallow depressions and fissures that describe a near vertical fault-line in the cliff-face – another set of steps. I climb and climb until I arrive at a shallow overhang – this looks tricky and if I fall now I will surely perish. I have never ventured this way before and have a moment of doubt……’follow the thread’…..
Stealing myself, and then lunging upwards with my strongest hand, I find there is a small nodule in the rock to grip. Releasing my right foot, with my toes I find another foot-hold, filled with grit. No-one has been this way in some time, so it seems, but, there is a sharp edge just above that seems to be another ledge and, once more certain that this is the right way, I release my legs, and swing myself up and over.
An impenetrable darkness confronts me. I roll away from the edge and remain still for a few seconds – the silence is poised, but, I detect an acoustic. There is a strange echoing reverberation here, as if issuing from the very darkness, fading away into the inner night of the rock-face. Another flash of lightning lights up the cliff-face. I am laying at the narrow low entrance to a cave, hidden from the ground. Just briefly, the thought enters my mind that this could be the place at which the spider entered the heart of her web – is this the place? Even from a distance this cave would be hard to see, it would take the sharpest vision to pick out this precise place, it has a secrecy about it – yet, strangely, I feel as if I am expected.
The feint smell of wood smoke drifts from the cave entrance, and, moving closer can see a very feint light glowing against a rock wall deep within the cliff. Venturing inwards on all fours, the floor of the cave rises slightly in a ridge and then, all of a sudden, over the crest of the ridge, I see the source of the light. A fire-pit sits in the centre of a bowl-like area deep at the back of the cave, small flames, fire spirits, dancing at its center. The cave continues, bending around to the left and, apart from the fire, it appears to be empty. Slowly I make my way further in and, coming to the fire side, look around.
A shallow shelf runs to the right hidden behind a corner of rock that arches overhead – it looks like a good place to rest, hidden from the entrance. I peer further into the darkness where the cave narrows and see that it continues, ending in a deep crack, no wider than my fore-arm is long, but, tall enough for a person to squeeze through. The faintest of draughts is issuing from the direction of the fissure and I can see that embers of the fire are kept aglow in this, as if the cave is breathing, fanning the fire. The wood has burned down, the fire is quiet, but, still alive. There is a sense that this crack in the rock is a doorway of sorts, that there is much more beyond it, but, for the moment my attention is held by the fire itself – apart from the glowing charcoal within the shallow fire-pit there is no wood-pile to feed it. A few small pieces line the rim of the fire and I nudge these into the glowing embers. A beautiful musky aromatic scent rises from the fires smouldering heart, sweet and dry, and as I savour the smell I notice that the whisps of smoke rise in a spiralling dance towards the roof of the cave.
“You might want to feed that fire, now that you’ve arrived…” – I jump involuntarily but, recognising that voice and, turning to meet his smiling face, I find Pemba sitting comfortably on folded buffalo skins in the crook of the ledge behind me, resting his hand on a small pile of cut wood.
“Pemba, you gave me such a fright!”
“Your grandfather will be proud of you, little brother…..I’m proud of you – you’ve done well and are now on the diviner’s road. Welcome to the Spider’s Cave!” I rush into his arms and, ruffling my hair, he looks at me with a wry smile and says…..
“….you haven’t by any chance got a drink of water for an old friend, have you?”
We settle by the fire, bringing the warm skins to sit on, and I offer him the gourd……
He puts a finger to his lips in a gesture of silence and nods towards the cave entrance…..the first drops of rain, swollen and heavy, begin to fall, bursting on the rock, quickly building to create a torrential blanket that closes off the outer world……I look expectantly back to Pemba.
After considering a moment, he tends the fire and without looking at me, begins to speak…..
“You made it just in time, Brother Ake……not a moment too soon by the look of it”. He raises his face, a mischevious smile setting deep creases dancing around his eyes – yet his eyes have that fierce penetrating gaze of the hawk I had seen earlier, back in the elders circle when he was returning my name to me. I know something is coming.
“You are older than your years little brother, far older than you may realise……and, that is good, as you will need all the wisdom you can muster on the road ahead……but, it is my duty, and the honour of an old friend, to help you remember……”. He leaves the sentence hanging, ever the dramatist and skillfull storyteller. But, I can tell, there is something serious at work in this moment……a question suddenly flashes into my mind, just as the curtain of water at the cave entrance is lit up with a bright lightning flash. Thunder follows quickly upon its heals.
“Why am I here Pemba…..I mean…..I haven’t even been initiated and this is the place of the Ancestors – won’t they be angry?”
Pemba nods his head, apparently pleased at my question……”you are catching on little brother. Yes, that is the question and you are here to receive the answer – you could not do so in any other place. You see, the Spider’s cave is hidden from the world, known only to those who know how to hear her messages and follow her instructions…..yes, this is a cave and it and we are in it in the world, but……this cave, and the way to it, are concealed to the eyes of those who cannot see. Only you and I, and Grandfather Ake, know in this lifetime of its existance…….”
His words echo inside of me, themselves spinning a curious web of knowing……but, he has not fully answered my question. I look into his face and see the hawk staring back. The waterfall at the cave entrance has concealed us from the world outside, but, that too has now been joined by a web of secrecy – why now?
As if he has heard my inner questioning Pemba, briefly turning his head to the left and pausing, as if considering, gives a quick nod and says….”there’s something I must show you, brother Ake”, and with this he turns and steps over to the woodpile. I see him lift the familiar shape of his hunting bag from behind it – a small black bundle is strapped to its side.
As he sits down next the fire and reaches into the bag, a loud crack of booming thunder crashes against the cliff face amongst the trees as a fearsome thunderbolt momentarily rends the interior of the cave with flourescent blue shadows…….Pemba stops and half glances in the direction of the cave entrance, then continues, taking a large knot of jerky and another gourd from his hunting bag. He offers me both…..
…..and, as I tear off a piece of the cured meat and begin to chew……he begins unwinding the small black bundle from its dark smoked leather wrapping. When I see what he is holding my jaw stops in mid chew and my mouth slowly opens in wonder. It is an unusual shape, strangely unnatural, of black leather made dusty with ash and bound tightly with dark strips of tanned skin embossed with a pattern picked out in a bright and equally unnatural looking ochre colour. Beneath the bindings I can see a curious symbol, raised in relief and shining with a golden white lustre.
“This is why…….”
He begins to unwind the bindings and, lifting a flap of thick skin along one of the strange object’s sides, reveals an interior filled with very thin leaves, reminding me of the gills of a mushroom…..everything is unusual about this……thing. But, when he splits the curious shape open and reveals the surface inside my eyes nearly burst out of their sockets. The leafy surface is very smooth, like no leaf I have ever seen upon a tree, and the layers of leaves seem to have an uncanny flexibility about them, but, on their surface is a…..a pattern, that appears to be the footprints of some kind of beetle. I have never seen anything like this before and look up at Pemba, my mouth hanging open.
“Your grandfather and I came across this curious thing not so very long ago – we were out on the northern fringes of the plain, looking for medicinal herbs we know grow only there, near the edge of the great desert. We found it laying in the deep grass – and there were signs of people having passed through, going south and west towards the lake settlements of our cousins, the Water People, and very recently. It is obvious they must have dropped it, we could not imagine it had been discarded or left with a purpose…….but, it has a certain…..” – he seemed momentarily lost for words……..”it is a talisman, but, not of any magic that either your grandfather or I are familiar with.
“At first we felt to leave it – out of respect for the fact that it is clearly something that may contain hidden dangers, but, also because such things have a way of……changing the course of things. But, a curious thing happened as we were about to leave it in the grasses – the Spider spirit showed herself and began climbing over its surface, stopping every now and then, as if probing its inner secrets……she told us to sit and listen.
“We learned that it was a sign of great change that is coming, change that will threaten everything we know, as well as the lives of all in the village. She told us that we, the people, have a choice……..we either follow our ancient wisdoms and let them guide us in finding a safe path, or……we wait.”
I looked at Pemba with puzzlement writ across my face – wait?
“But, why would we want to wait if the Spider spirit already told us that we are in great danger?”
“Yes, that is the hardest part of it little brother. The problem was that if we told the people about it they would want to know more…..we couldn’t expect everyone to simply rise up, taking the entire village with us, and simply wander off into the plain without a destination, especially, when they had not seen the talisman with their own eyes, and, even then……”
I pondered Pemba’s words a moment and finally came to see the wisdom of his reasoning. He cut across my thoughts and once again anticipated the question that was about to emerge from my lips.
“The Spider spirit also told us we, your grandfather and I, were to keep the talisman, but, safely, which is how it came to be covered in ash…..it is also surrounded with strong medicine, to keep its power contained. We brought it back to the village and, after divining it more deeply, went with it to Guino…..after listening to our account, he said we must bring it to the chief elders circle, of the men’s and women’s circles, together….and so, it is known of in the village, but, as yet, only to those who need to know……but, this will change now…..”
“…..but, why don’t you just give it to the spirits – surely they will know how to make it safe.”
“Brother, I can see the sense of the words you speak, but, even though we must be careful with this thing, your grandfather and I have discovered that the greater danger is not from this thing itself, but, from its rightful owners…..they are the people of the dead!” It was a term I had never heard before, but, it made me shiver at the image it carried. “They have the appearance of one who has been taken by the death spirit, yet, they remain alive….or so it appears.”
“What? Do you mean to say they wear the colour of death Pemba?”
“No brother Ake, they don’t wear it, they are it – as white as ash, and wearing the same talismanic shape that you see on the cover of this talisman……I have seen them, they carry thunder and shining sticks of solid lightning that bring death and have only one thing in mind – to make us follow their ways, or die – either way, they want us as food for their spirits, my brother”.
I could hardly believe what I was hearing – it was the most frightening thing I had ever heard! But, a single question still remained unanswered, the most important one…..
“What can we do Pemba, what does grandmother Spider say we can do, surely she knows?!”
A sour smile briefly settled across Pemba’s face……”the people are preparing the village as we speak. Your father will join us once he has fulfilled his part, but, understand, he may also have to stay…..to protect your family.” He looked at me with a mixture of sadness and resolute determination. “Everyone knows that your grandfather and I have been your chosen protectors…….since your mother left to join the ancestors”. I shuddered with the memory of my mother’s parting, the horrible fact that we knew she had been taken by the death spirit, but, could find no trace of her…..her face was a vague moonlit memory from my very early years, as I was little more than a new-born, just learning to crawl, when she disappeared. Many women take up the role of mother to each of the young ones in our village, so, I was never without an aunt or elder sister to show me the ways of the village and family life. But, what Pemba said to me in that moment changed everything…..
“She was taken by the people of the dead little brother.” He drew me closer and held me tightly for a moment…..”but, it is our duty and the desire of the ancestors, and the chiefs, that we protect you and teach you of the hidden worlds that we share this life with. You see, the people of the dead do not have the knowledge of our ways. They see us as a people possessed by what they call ‘demons’, spirits who are at odds with their own spirits, infact, I have heard that they have few spirits, that one great spirit rules their lives, but, does so with fear and death.” I pulled away and looked at him incredulously.
“Just as you and I know that we must work together with the spirits and the ancestors, and follow the ways of the world through their guidance, they too must do the same with their spirits – but, they pay little heed to their ancestors and their spirits do not live in the world about us, in the trees and animals, the rivers and fire. They are helpless in the world, and have no connection with the spirits of life – they can only follow the path of death to stay alive. It is this that makes them dangerous – and they will kill anything that threatens their own ways, its what gives them power. Amongst the living it is the healers, the diviners and storytellers, the men and women who carry our wisdom that they fear the most in this world……and that is why you have been called to the Spiders cave. There is no time to wait, for you to join the other boys in the traditional initiations – you are being given a different route to initiation, one that will put you on a path that has rarely been trodden, a path that grandfather Ake and I trod as keepers of this hidden medicine path……everyone knows we, your grandfather, you and I, hold this role, and do so for the good of the entire village, but, none but ourselves are initiated into it. You have now been called to that role. We cannot run the risk of letting you become prey to the people of death. And, they will surely destroy us all if they find out what this path means to our people…….this was the councel of the grandmother Spider herself.”
My mind was reeling. I suddenly realised I was thirsty and took a swig from the gourd Pemba had handed me – it did not contain water, it was the fermented juice of certain fruits that I knew from our walks together – Pemba watched me closely and, sensing my hesitancy, gave an encouraging nod and continued…..
“You and I have a journey to make brother Ake – we must travel north, to the edge of the great desert and find our way across it to a meeting place…….”
Now I was curious, and felt a tinge of excitment , even though I was still trying to absorb all Pemba had told me……
“A gathering has been called of our brothers and sisters who hold this hidden medicine – there are more of us in the world than simply you and I! But, we are to find a way for the people, all our people……and, on the way, I will teach you the ways of the diviner. But, now, we would do well to rest….we have another task ahead of us tomorrow before we set off – I must take you to the Spider’s shrine…..” Pemba gesticulated with his chin towards the crack in the rock at the back of the cave.
The axis of my life was shifting and the night colluded to spin me into a deepening web of wonder as I, yawning and suddenly aware just how tired I was, succumbed to the spirit of sleep, knowing that my brother, the wise elder Pemba, the most fearless of diviners, was here with me, to protect me……….I had so many questions. The torrential storm outside was becoming a distant sensation, soothing and protective and, once again, Pemba’s voice was the last thing I remembered as my eyelids closed…..
“Rest now little brother, we have much ahead of us”……and with a tender care, as I lay my head on the diviner’s bag, he tucked his blanket once more about me as I drifted into dreamless sleep……..
Chenge and the Spider © Rob Purday 2013 – a story from the Owlmirror Archives.
This story is a fragment of a much larger work that was completed a few years ago – yet, stories have a life of their own, and, this fragment does not end here. The story of Chenge and the Spider will be continuing here at Owlmirror when Chenge, now become Ake, finds out where the crack in the rock at the back of the Spider’s Cave leads, and just what, or I should say ‘who’, grandmother spider has waiting for him……until then, go well on your journeys……