Methven - Day Twelve - Part Two
"Shut up, Drew!"
"The child is under my protection."
Natasi turned to face her.
"May I know your name?"
"I am Læ, of Centra, Friend of the Mothers of Khasim Clanhome."
"I am Natasi of Khasim Clanhome."
"I am honored."
"As am I. Returning to the matter of Mantami, claimed to be of Khasim Clanhome, what is the nature of your charge?"
"It was my responsibility that the child Mantami was taken from these mountains three years ago. I have sworn to return him safely to his family."
"You have done so. I thank you."
"Wait. This is a matter for the Mothers, is it not?"
The Vomisa ranger shot her a calculating look.
"Yes, clearly it is."
"Then my duty does not end until they have judged him worthy of return."
"That is your right."
"I choose to exercise it, Mr. Natasi."
"Then strike your camp. We leave now."
She shook her head.
"You have accepted our hospitality. We will eat before we go. And we will sing stories."
"You have studied our ways."
"I have studied Vomisa customs for more years than you have been alive, Mr. Natasi. And I have been a Friend to the Mothers."
"So you have said. Come then, let us eat."
. . .
Bruno outdid himself. It took him close to three hours to prepare the meal he served us and our "guests". It was quite literally a feast, with several main dishes and course after course of appetizers, breads, side dishes and confections, none of them familiar to me.
I buttonholed him as he was adding yet another chafing dish to the spread that crowded the picnic table our party sat around.
"Bruno, this stuff is great! What the heck is it?"
"That's g'soht. It's sabat and baby khatar beans in a spicy cream sauce. The stuff by your elbow is tchofik, a meat pie made with..umm..you probably don't want to know what it's made with. The green fruit is ikka and that white stuff you're drinking is malk."
"It's all wonderful! I take it this is Vomisa food?"
"It sure ain't zesty Italian."
. . .
At the end of the feast, Bruno served us all cups of some brownish liquid that had a zesty, nutty taste. Based on the way it kept my eyelids propped open when, by all rights, I should have been reduced to a digestive stupor, it was a fairly strong stimulant, too.
"What do you call this?"
"Geez. That's a shame. Something that tastes this good ought to have a more appealing name."
"Yeah, well, life's a bitch and then you pay taxes. Help me stoke the fire, okay?"
We did that, adding fuel until it was roaring along in a fair approximation of a bonfire. The eleven Vomisa rangers arrayed themselves in a semi-circle around one side of it and the nine of us sat in an arc across from them.
Læ, who was in the middle of our group, directly across from Natasi, stood once everyone else was seated.
"We have shared our names and our fire. We have shared meat and bread, the fruits of our hunting and gathering. We have eaten and drunk and now we will sing stories. Who will begin?"
Natasi rose to his feet.
"Natasi Khasim, you honor us."
He nodded, briefly touching his fingertips together in that same inverted-steeple hand gesture that I'd seen Mantami employ so often. Then, as Læ sat down, he began to sing--in Vomisa.
The Vomisa language isn't pretty. It's harsh and raspy-sounding, with lots of "K"'s and "T"'s. Basically, it sounds like a lot of throat clearing and growling to me. Unfortunately, their music is a lot like their language--it reminds me of a German shepard with nasty chest cold barking and howling at the moon.
When Natasi finished his "song", his fellow Vomisa applauded him by whistling and enthusiastically pounding the ground in front of them with their fists. Læ, too pounded the ground and whistled at him, so the rest of the home team did likewise.
Then Bruno got up and sang "Danny Boy" in Gaelic.
I recognized the tune, if not the language. Bruno has a fine, clear tenor and is clearly a trained singer. His rendition of that Irish chestnut was heartbreaking--tender and wistful, without being in the least maudlin or hokey.
We Earthfolks and our Centran employers all clapped hard and sincerely for him and, after a moment's hesitation, so did the Vomisa rangers.
Takhani, Natasi's second-in-command, followed Bruno. His contribution was no more tuneful or appealing than Natasi's had been, so naturally it won him every bit as big and enthusiastic a round of applause as his boss had gotten.
Læ sang next, in Vomisa. Whatever her subject was, it caused quite a stir among Natasi's subordinates. They all looked over at Mantami several times during her performance, the first time angry and startled, then more and more thoughtfully.
The applause for Læ's recital was hesitant on the Vomisa side and politely enthusiastic on ours.
Another Vomisa coughed and barked through another number that brought him the eager approval of his peers. Then Carleton stood up and delivered a hearty, but mostly offkey version of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" to a modest ovation.
They all sang songs in Vomisa.
Pith did "Friend of the Devil", his voice breaking on "I just might get some sleep tonight."
Bill sang "Sixteen Tons". He did a pretty good job of it, too.
Tong did a rap about our adventures that included the line "An' tha Wildman said, 'ARE YOU GUYS NUTS?'" Rap has always seemed like just so much yelling to me, so I'm in no position to judge whether his composition or performance were any good.
Blandy essayed "You've Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party". He forgot half the words and giggled a couple of times on the way, but he eventually got through it.
I'd rather not think about what I did to the helpless and unsuspecting theme from "Gilligan's Island". I can't carry a tune in a bathtub..and there weren't any bathtubs around.
With two batters left in the Vomisa rangers' rotation, Mantami's turn came up. He stood hesitantly and sang even more hesitantly. His voice quavered and occasionally broke. I didn't know what he was singing about, since he did it in Vomisa, but the Khasim rangers were rapt, their attention fully focused on him throughout, and they gave him a vigorous round of applause.
Vomisa warblers 10 and 11 did their thing and, sometime near dawn, Natasi brought the festivities to a close.
"We have shared your food and your fire. We have sung stories together. Now, as soon as you can break your camp, we will leave."
. . .
"So, what, exactly, just happened?"
Bruno and I were folding the big tent that the bulk of our party sleeps in.
"We sang stories together. Now we're all pals."
"Well that's just wonderful..but it doesn't really answer my question, does it?"
"What did I leave out?"
"What was Læ singing about that got our new best buddies so riled up about Mantami? And what did Mantami do to get 'em back on his side?"
"Oh, that. Læ basically told them Mantami's story. Mantami sang about how happy he was to be coming home to his family and his Clanhome."
"That's the gist, Drewsie. Keep in mind that this is all news to Mantami's relatives. 'Mantami' is a fairly common name and children preparing for the Ordeal disappear all the time."
"And they just shrug and go on with life? That seems pretty cold-blooded to me."
"Different cultures, different mores, kiddo. The Vomisa have a zillion kids every year. The Ordeal culls the weaklings and the strong ones get to breed. So, why should they care if a kid preparing for the Ordeal gets weeded out a little early?"
"What is this Ordeal, anyway? I've been under the impression it's just a ceremony of some sort..some kind of rite of passage."
"It's a rite of passage, all right. At dawn on the day of the Winter solstice, kids who're ready for the Ordeal are kicked out the front door and have to make it to some other Clanhome in order to become adults."
"In the dead of Winter? You're kidding!"
He shook his head.
"That's pretty harsh."
"You don't know the half of it, kiddo."
"They leave their Clanhome naked."
"They don't even get clothes?"
"They get a knife. That's all."
I looked around at Natasi's rangers. Each of them had managed to survive a brutal trek across these steep, unforgiving mountains in the dead of Winter, naked, armed only with a knife. My respect for their individual toughness rose about fifteen notches, even as my distaste for a culture that could show such depraved indifference to the fate of its children filled me with revulsion.
"That has to be the most..I don't even know what to term it..the most barbaric, sadistic, immoral custom I've ever heard of! It makes cannibalism seem downright neighborly!"
He shook his head.
"It's how they do things. It's how they've always done things."
He held up a hand to forestall my protest.
"Understand, kiddo, the Vomisa kids look forward to the Ordeal. They know what they're getting into. They know they're probably not going to survive and they look forward to it anyway."
"How can they?"
"Because, if they make it through the Ordeal, they're adults. They get to breed, they get the respect of other adults and, if they're girls, they get to become Mothers someday."
"And, if they don't make it through the Ordeal, they're tacht food."
"You got it. Now be a pal and go fold up those cots, willya?"
. . .
We left a little after dawn, despite the fact that none of us had gotten any meaningful sleep. We didn't break for a meal until long after midday and, by that time, we non-Vomisa were all reeling with fatigue.
Our Vomisa escorts built a fire and spit-roasted some "birds" and a thunderpuppy that had been unlucky enough to cross our path. No seasoning, just greasy, blackened meat. Afterward, Natasi passed out a handful of what looked like macadamia nuts to each of us.
"What're these? After-dinner mints?"
"Hinch nuts, Mr. Wilde. They contain a powerful stimulant."
"Does that mean what I think it means?"
"Yes, Mr. Wilde. We will not be making camp between here and Khasim Clanhome."
"Oh, lovely. And Khasim Clanhome is how far away?"
"At our present rate of travel, I would think another three days."
. . .
It was getting near twilight when we entered a clearing on a wooded slope and found ourselves face-to-face with a large, unhappy tacht.
The thing growled and rose on its hind legs to face us. I had to crane my neck to see its toothy, snarling muzzle. The damn thing had to be eleven feet tall if it was an inch.
It batted away the Vomisa in front of it as if he were a rag doll. The next nearest ranger was Natasi, who immediately sank to his knees before the angry behemoth.
For a moment, I thought the Vomisa leader had simply crumbled in fear of the raging carnivore.
Natasi's hands were folded in that same upside-down steeple that I'd become so familar with while watching Mantami do his Scout Way stuff. His eyes were closed and his face was creased in a calm, beatific smile.
The tacht's muzzle uncrinkled, covering its long, sharp teeth. It dropped back to all fours and swung its head around, as if bewildered, sniffing the air.
Then it turned away and ambled off at right angles to our direction of travel, as if it had forgotten we even existed.
(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)