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Eclectic England: Fiction by
Sara Maitland
 
'Battery People' by Fitkin Wall:
Graham Fitkin & Ruth Wall

'Pretty Things' © 2007 George Blacklock
'Pretty Things 2001 | Oil on Canvas' by George Blacklock
 
 

Watu

"There is no anthropological authenticity to this story. Although many indigenous people body mark for a wide variety of reasons, no people to my knowledge, "prick" in this specific way or to celebrate this fictional mythology."

“There is death in the pot for the living’s food.”

Watu is in the jungle.
Watu is in the jungle, alone.
It is strange in the jungle.

Despite the humming of life, the music of energy, power, growth, greed, the jungle is fragile. There is no depth or richness to the soil. Each dead leaf is stripped of its goodness by new growth so quickly that nothing sinks down into the earth.

Because it is fragile, it is competitive and cruel. The strangler vine entwines itself around the huge ficus trees and squeezes them to death in its desire to reach up through the canopy to the sun. Then insects devour the dead wood and the vine is left, a vertical spiral with an empty core. Down on the floor young trees grow to about the height of one of us and then they wait; they wait with infinite patience; they wait for years. They wait for a larger tree near them to die and make a hole in the green roof. Then the small trees make a wild dash upwards, growing twice their own height in the time it takes the moon to come back to the full, fast, faster than the other trees around them, for there is only space for one in the sun. The jungle is stirring with energy, with life and power, if we can get it, if we can win.

In the jungle it is hot and sweaty. In the jungle there are insects, so many biting feeding insects. They cling closer than a lover by night and by day. They need our blood to live on. In the jungle there is a deathly intimacy of need and desire. In the dark the jaguar carries his silken beauty, his great heavy tail and flaming eyes, to the killing grounds and the night is alive with the screams of death.

In the jungle it is beautiful and deadly.
Watu is in the jungle. Alone.

Watu is always alone in the jungle – and now is an especially perilous moment. This morning the People moved on. Every so often we move on – we dismantle the village, load up the dugouts and move on. We paddle up river chanting the rhythm, or drift downstream languorous, telling stories, enjoying the changes, except there are no changes. Always there is the yellow river and beside the yellow river are the green trees and above the yellow river is the blue sky and there is nothing else. It goes on and on and there is no distance, no depth, no inside nor outside; there is only the jungle and it is beautiful and deadly. We need points of discrimination; we need to draw boundaries, set up markers, create clear definitions; we make them and we drive them home with the rhythms of the stories, and the beating of the drums. And we draw them on our bodies in the Rituals of the Skin.

When we move on, we come, after a day or a week, to a sandbar or a beach that makes a small clear space between the river and the trees. We have been here before but now it is new. We stop and resettle. We take the fire from the fire pot and hearth it; we feed it tenderly and then victoriously. We gather around it for the Ritual of Welcome and we tell the children the stories so that they may be safe. Pat, pat patter like raindrops on the drums to mark the rhythm of the story, and the Teller works through the tales. The children raise their hands to their cheeks and feel the edges of the yellow circles, the sign of the Turtle Father, pricked in at birth so He will know His own. We are His People.

But Watu cannot come in the boats, because there is no place, no place for Watu. We do not know if Watu is drummer, or paddler, or baggage. We do not know if Watu is teller or tale. We do not know if Watu should be in the women’s boat or the men’s boat. We do not know, not for certain, if Watu is animal or spirit or one of the People. So Watu has to follow as best as maybe. Always, before, before this time, Watu has arrived in the end. A few days, a week, once nearly a whole moon later, Watu will creep out of the jungle, and sit at the very margin of the village, at the very edge of the jungle, in the place between. We are glad when Watu comes, but it is a dark gladness. We are frightened, we are endangered and we are guilty. Watu is the shadow.

In the jungle, under the canopy, there is always shadow, a strange darkness even at mid-day. The spirits like the darkness, but the People do not. Watu is in the jungle, alone, under the canopy. Watu is our shadow, our strange darkness.

Watu came in a hard time. This is no excuse. We are guilty. But it was a hard time.

Here is one of the stories that we tell at the Ritual of Welcome. The story of the Waters of Separation.

Once upon a time there was no difference between the People and the spirits.
Dub. . . dub. . .dub. . .
We and they moved in their world and in our world and in the space between, and we talked and laughed and sang together. There was no difference, then, between the yellow river and the blue sky and they were both green like the jungle. And this time went on for a long, long time, longer than the river, except that then there was no time because there was no difference.
Dub. . .dub. . .dub
Then the flood came. It came as rain from the sky, coming down; it came as waves from the river, rising up. All the yellow from the green sky fell down into the river and all the blue from the green river was tossed up to the sky. And when morning came and the waters were calm again the sky was blue and the river was yellow and they were separated. The jungle between them, sharing both, was still green, ad so it has remained, but now there is shadow and darkness in it because the sky and the river, the blue and the yellow are struggling always to be together again.
Dub. . . dub. . .dub on the drums
The spirits did not like this new situation – they did not like the clear lines, the boundaries, the differences. They wanted to leave our world and live only and forever in the spirit world. They asked the People to come with them.
Dub. . .dub. . .dub
But there was a girl and a boy – and who can know when the young are foolish and when they are wise – and they would not come. In the rain on the water, and the rain on the broad leaves, and the lapping of the waves beside the river they had heard the drums, the music of the People. In the forest, on the river and in the place between they went tapping, tapping, listening, asking, seeking and finding – finding the trees and the stones and the sand that made the music, the way of tapping it out from the root and the branch, the ways to make the rhythm. They were so busy looking for the sound of the waters, the way to make the drums that marked difference and time, that marked the clear lines of the stories and boundaries of river and jungle and sky. They would not come.
Dub. . .dub. . .dub.
In the end the spirits were angry and went away to the spirit world and would not tell the People how to travel there. So to this day the spirits can come to the People as they wish but the People cannot go to them.
Dub. . . dub. . .dub
Only the Turtle Father, the oldest of us all, stayed. He said he was too old to move on; but we think he stayed because he loved us. He became our Father, and every child of the People carries on their cheeks the yellow marks that he carries on his, so that the spirits do not treat us with malice and so that we are not altogether alone.
Dub. . .dub. . . dub

So, when new members of the People, new children of the Turtle Father, come to us, when they make the long hard journey from the spirit world down the two rivers – the yellow river of the jungle and the red river from our bellies, and the waters of the two rivers mingle and stain them orange gold – we must rejoice and make them welcome, we must laugh and sing for them. But some come only to visit. They are not People, they are spirits on a different journey who have perhaps taken a wrong turning, got lost, or weary and come to us only in passing. We cannot tell, we can only wait and see. So the Turtle Father taught us to build birth huts at the very margin of the village, at the very edge of the jungle, in the place between, where the turtles also lay their eggs. And we wait, very quietly, the mother and birthed thing in the dark hut, and the rest of us about our daily business, because if it is a spirit we do not want it to feel too much at home, we do not want it to stay. Then if it remains with us through seven nights and seven dawns we know it is truly one of the People, and we hold the Ritual of Outdooring. One of the Old Ones goes into the birth hut and takes the child from its mother and brings it out into the sunshine and we laugh and sing to the drums and make the child welcome. And we prick into its cheeks the yellow circles of the Turtle Father, so that he will know that it is his and other greedy spirits will know it is his, one of the People, and leave it with us. And around the child’s belly button we prick in the rays of the sun, because it has come out of the darkness as we all have. The child screams and we laugh because spirits do not suffer pain, and the child’s pain joins it to us for the whole time of its life, short or long. We share with the Turtle Father the task of making the People. We bathe the child in the water from the river and wrap it in the leaves from the jungle, and place a butterfly on its breast and we know the child is one of us, one of the People, not a spirit who leaves when it feels like it.

Here is another of the stories that we tell at the Ritual of Welcome. The story of the Foolish Monkeys.

Tap. . .tap. . .tap.
Once upon another time, after the world had separated into river and sky and jungle, there was no difference between the People and the animals. We and they moved in their world and in our world and in the space between, and we talked and laughed and sang together. There was no difference, then.
Tap. . .tap. . .tap on the drums
In those times when the river rose too high and the children were cold and wet the Jaguar would come out of the darkness of the jungle and hold the children against her fur to warm them and lullaby them in her deep purring. In those times the giant otters would teach the People to swim in the cochas and the mosquitoes fed on dew; and only the wisest of the Old Ones could tell who was of the People and who was a monkey. The monkeys too were children of the Turtle Father and told their stories from the treetops while we told ours beside the river, and there was no misunderstanding.
Tap. . . tap. . . tap
But the monkeys were foolish; they would not teach their children. The monkey children were restless and chattering like all children, but the monkeys would not make them stay still and learn the stories. The monkeys thought that it was too difficult for the little ones to learn the stories properly and they petted them and gave them nuts even when they just chattered and did not keep to the rhythms of the drums, and the words of the chants and the shape and boundaries of the tales so the children grew up without rhythm and without sense, chattering of nothing until their chatter made no sense.
Tap. . . tap. . .tap
The foolish monkeys were too soft with the monkey children, because their cries hurt the parents also. When the little monkeys cried out in pain at the Outdooring and the Pricking, the monkeys stopped pricking them: the monkeys stopped marking the sun on their bellies, and the yellow circles on their cheeks in honour of the Turtle Father. So the Turtle Father said, “Since they have no tales I will give them tails instead,” and the monkeys grew tails and fur on their faces and chattered senselessly. So the Turtle Father could not recognise them as his children. But he said to the People, “I know you. You are mine.”
Tap. . .tap. . .tap
The monkeys were jealous then and gathered the other animals into their villages and made a distance and a difference between themselves and the People, and from that time to this time the there has been war between the animals and the People.
Tap. . .tap. . .tap

So, when new members of the People, new children of the Turtle Father, come to us we mark them. We prick them with the yellow circles of the Turtle Father so that he will know they are not little monkeys, and we prick them also on the forehead with the five marks, which have no meaning. They are senseless so that they will make sense to the foolish monkeys. They are there to tell the animals that this is one of us – this is not another animal but one of the People, one of the children of the Turtle Father and so worthy of respect.

Here is another of the stories that we tell at the Ritual of Welcome. The story of the Lazy Child.

Putta. . .putta. . .putta
Once upon another time, after the world had separated into river and sky and jungle, after the monkeys had swung away to their senseless chatter in the treetops, there was no difference between the women and the men among the People. We all did the work and cooked the food and nursed the babies and sang the songs. And in those times the children did not come to us down the Red River, but hatched from eggs like turtle babies, along the river edge, and whoever found one newly hatched would take it into a hut and care for it.
Putta. . .putta. . .putta on the drums.
Then, after a long time, a time of great peace and happiness, a child came to us who was lazy. This child was very lazy. This child would do no work – would not cook the food or nurse the babies or sing the songs. Ay-yay, this child was lazy – it would do no work at all and lay in the sunshine growing fat and sleek and cunning. Wo-wo-wo. That lazy, lazy child.
Putta. . .putta. . .putta
The Old Ones came to the child and said that it must work.
Tend the fire, one said. Putta putta
Go with the hunters, one said. Putta putta
Feed the babies, one said. Put-put-putta
Catch some fish, one said. Putta-putta-putta
Stir the cook pot, one said. Put-put
Yes and yes and yes, said the lazy child – and slipped away into the green jungle and did nothing.
And when the Old Ones spoke together each thought the Lazy Child was doing a different kind of work. There were too many different tasks and no one to watch the Lazy Child do them, so he played in the sunshine and grew fatter and fatter.
Put. . . Put. . . putta
And soon the other children would not work either. They said, as children say, it was not fair. They all tumbled and laughed in the sunshine and bathed in the yellow river and sang songs without meaning.
Putta. . .putta. . .putta
Then one day, as the Lazy Child lay all fat in the sunshine, the Jaguar came down to the place in between the river and the jungle and looked at the child through its great green eyes.
I am the jaguar, said the jaguar. You should run away or else I will eat you, because you are fat and sleek and tasty.
Yes, yes said the Lazy Child, not even standing up.
Pppp. . .pppp. . . .put.
And that was that. The jaguar ate up the Lazy Child.

The other children came to the Old Ones and said, Let us work with the grown people, because we do not want to be eaten. And the Old Ones said, Yes. But the Turtle Father said, No. The Turtle Father said it was the People’s fault, because they had not properly considered how children were. The tasks should be divided, so that they were done in groups and not alone all mixed and muddled. The People needed to know where each child should be and what its tasks were and who was looking to it and who its fellows were at the work. There would be men’s work and women’s work and they would be divided fairly, but every one must be one or the other so that the children could learn well and not be eaten.

And then the Turtle Father changed things so that the People could have the joy of making their own babies: a man and a woman together – the joyful shared work.
Putta. . . putta . . .putta.
Put. . . put . . . putt.

This is a funny story and we all laugh, and the children giggle and look at each other with promises for the future and shame for the tasks they have left undone. But so, when new members of the People, new children of the Turtle Father, come to us we look at them with care and attention and decide which half of the People they are. And when they have been with us for two whole moons, we prick them with the sign of the men’s huts, or the house of the women. A long curved line down the boys’ backs, so that even from behind and in silence we can tell them in the hunt. A circle above the left breast of each woman, so that the babies will know where to feed. Thus each child has a belonging in both its work and in its joy. And the jaguar needs must go hungry.

We tell the stories and the children learn the stories and take pride in their pricking and know they are neither spirits nor animals but members of the People. They know who they are and what songs they must learn and what work they must do and how they should do it and with whom, so that the People may flourish and live in harmony and joy.

This is one part of the Ritual of Welcome, when we move on to a new place, which is also always an old place and we hearth the fire and sing the songs and tell the stories so that we know and our children know and under the blue sky through the green jungle the yellow river flows on.

But even as we do these things we look slantwise along the beach, along the side of the river and at the edge of the jungle, and we disguise our looking from each other. We look to see if Watu has followed on, has arrived.

Watu came in a hard time. We have no story for that coming.

Perhaps Watu’s mother died even as the child struggled down the red river.
Perhaps a snake came into the birth hut and bit the birth friend. The birth hut is a secret place.
Perhaps Watu’s father was killed hunting.
Perhaps we did not know the child had come so we could not count the days.
Perhaps were moving on.
Perhaps there was a sickness. There was a flood perhaps.
Perhaps one of the Old Ones took Watu, but perhaps she was very old and had gone back to the time before and chattered like the monkeys.
Perhaps that moving on went awry. Sometimes in the moving on the boats get separated and it takes some moons for the People to re-gather.

Someone took Watu. Then. . . this is our shame. . we do not know. . . there is no story, there is no song, no rhythm for the drums.

After the passing of some moons, after some space too long to turn back and pretend, there was Watu, lively, healthy, crawling in the village, holding up little hands and laughing at the butterflies.

Not pricked.

One of us noticed she was not pricked. The beat of the drum faltered, the rhythm of the day was broken. There was a silence.

There are no yellow circles on Watu’s cheeks.
There are no coloured marks on Watu’s forehead.
We cannot know if Watu is a spirit or an animal or one of the People.
Watu is the space between.

Watu sits at the very edge of the village, between the river and the jungle, in the place between. We feed Watu. We are not cruel. But Watu cannot come in the boats. Cannot sing the songs. Cannot join the Rituals. Cannot touch the drums, or the spears, or the fire pot, or any of the People. That is too perilous.

Watu is our shadow, our strange darkness. And although no one wants to, even as we sing the songs in the Ritual of Welcome we glance, secretly, toward the place between to see if Watu has arrived. We are glad when Watu comes, but it is a dark gladness. We are frightened, we are endangered and we are guilty. Watu is our shadow. We are glad that Watu comes but we will be glad when Watu does not come. One day Watu will not come, the jungle will have taken Watu and we will be free.

In the dawn of the morning after the Ritual of Welcome there is the Ritual of First Hunting. This is the boys’ hunting. Because we are a wise people and not like the monkeys we never move on without good supplies so need does not drive this hunt. The new and growing power of our young warriors needs freedom, needs its moments of wildness and they swagger out on the First Hunting unguided and undirected. If they bring home meat we will feast for them and if they bring home nothing we will laugh with them.

We are proud of the First Hunters. At dawn they gather by the side of the river to oil and paint each other and they skip with glee, dancing little dances and flourishing their bows and pipes. They stamp their feet like drums and slap each other and pin feathers in their hair. The girls, watching closely, pretend not to notice, and the men and the women laugh together to see so much beauty and promise and power.
We can never ask questions about the First Hunting – it is the boys’ secret as the Ritual of Blood is the girls’ secret. It is not our business. The young ones are our promise and are worthy of our respect.

So we do not have any story. We do not know what happened. We do not want to know what happened. The boys of that First Hunting stayed out in the jungle a long time, too long. It was fully dark before they came back to the village. They came with a good-sized peccary, but they slung it down by the fireside without pride or pleasure. They were sullen and shamefaced. There was a great deal of blood on their faces – both the line of the kill, running from hair line to nose tip, and the mark of the Turtle, the mark of initiation and spirit travel running from cheek bone to ear, but messy, part obliterated or half-hearted. Perhaps they were just the daubs of blood that get smeared on any hunter in a clumsy group killing. We do not know. We cannot ask. There were nightmares in the huts that night, cries of anguish and of horror; there were blundering sounds of half sleeping young men lurching out of their huts to vomit by the river. Next day there were gaggles of them, avoiding the elders, low voiced and tense in the space between the village and the jungle, the jungle and the river.

Watu never came again.

But time passed and the smoothness returned – the songs are sung, the babies birthed, the People thrive. And the Turtle Father crawls out of the yellow river to sun himself on a fallen log.

The yellow-spotted side-necked turtle is an ancient species. They are very ancient, these turtles. When the continents had not yet divided but still clung together, their crafty treacherous roots still acting out stability and security, when dinosaurs roamed the flood plains that have since grown into mountains and the mosasaurs were the most rapacious predators of the seas, already these small turtles swam and laid their eggs and crept out of the dangerous waters to sun themselves on the dangerous shores. They look old. They look very old. Their eyes are small and lost in wrinkles of skin and they drag themselves on battered flippers like the arthritic feet of the aged.

In the jungle they crawl out of the yellow river to sun themselves on fallen logs. You cannot know what they are dreaming of, but tears form in their rheumy eyes and slide down their wrinkled faces. Their hard, resistant shells are green grey, the same colour as the logs on which they lie. They ought to be nearly impossible to see. But in fact they are easy to spot because when the turtles come out to weep in the sunshine, a dancing cloud of tiny yellow and white butterflies gathers around their heads, like confetti in a breeze, to sip the tears from the turtles eyes.

Listen, listen through the dark music of the jungle, listen very carefully and you may hear the drumming of impatient butterfly feet and the tiny kisses of greedy delicate butterfly tongues as they come, windblown and dancing, to drink the tears that flow from all our eyes.

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last update: July 2, 2007