Sunday Storytelling

From the North-East: Where folklore and fiction mingle to become one

An excerpt from the award-winning Naga writer Easterine Kire’s new novel.

“What is your name, traveller?” the older woman asked.

She was the taller of the two, and less spectral, despite her painfully gaunt appearance. As for her sister, Pele thought that someone could easily mistake her for a length of crushed black velvet cloth blowing in the wind. Not that there was anything of the finesse of velvet about her, but it was the way she looked so ephemeral, like the wind would blow her away at any moment if it blew just a little hard. He looked from one to the other and marvelled that he was having a conversation with them at all. But there was something about them, a childlike spirit and openness, that had disarmed him. Already, he had lost the initial fear one has of the unknown.

“My name?” he said, as though he had forgotten it. Was he still himself, the heartbroken man who had left his home to travel through this parched land to nowhere in particular? Or had he become someone else and did not know? He looked at the women. They were still waiting for his answer, and now he could see their eyes, dark winter-night eyes that waited expectantly, as if his name would give meaning to their existence. There was innocence in the eyes that watched and waited upon his every word. There was nothing to fear here.

“My name is Pele. I am on my way to the Village of Weavers. I never expected to find anyone here. Had I not seen you two, I would have sheltered for the night in one of the broken houses and walked on. Then when I noticed some movement and saw two figures in the ruins...I might have taken a different path altogether.”

“Yes, we know,” said the tall one “No one comes near because they think we are the spirits of our ancestors haunting this place. But you see for yourself, we are flesh and blood. We are not spirits, not yet.”

Pele saw her smile as she said this, and he felt sorry for them in a way he had never felt sorry for anyone.

He wondered why they should make him feel so. Yet he also felt wonderment at their life: eating hope and staying alive! They didn’t seem to be sorry for themselves, and the expectation in their eyes was nothing short of wondrous. They didn’t mind their ghostly existence, so strong was their desire to see the Son of the Thundercloud. Everything else had become unimportant to them. And that made him doubly curious.

“Do you know how far the Village of Weavers is from here?” he asked them. He had to confess that he had lost track of where he was, and that he could no longer make sense of the directions he had been given to the village.

“You must go to the Village of Weavers. But it has moved since the time you were given directions,” the older woman said. “The stars pull it along with them, and it is even further east now than when you were first told of it.”

“How do you know this?” Pele had to ask.

“Because we watch the stars every night, and every night they move a little southeast. But you wouldn’t know because you spend your nights sleeping.”

“We will show you tonight if you can bear to stay awake,” the younger one offered.

“And if I don’t stay here and go on, is there another village where I could shelter?” Pele asked, for he had remembered that they had no food.

“Not for a whole day, and you would risk running into the wolves that attack anything on these hills.”

“I’ll stay here then.”

”It is a good decision,” the women said.

They led him to the abandoned ruins, and he followed them into the house they lived in.

Sheaves of dried herbs hung on the walls of the first room. Except for that, the house was completely bare. There were just two mats on the floor. They pulled one over to him.

“No, that is your bed. You won’t have anything to sleep on if you give me that!” he protested.

But the first woman laughed and said, “We don’t sleep much. We don’t waste time sleeping. He could come at any time. But you need your sleep. Or you could stay awake and watch the stars with us.”

Pele took the mat and spread his own blanket over it. How strange they were, he thought, surprising him every moment. Maybe he should do what they did in order to see what they saw. From where he was, he could see the sky through the many holes in the roof. Stretching himself on the mat, he lay down and adjusted his eyes to the darkness. At first the skies above him were not completely dark. They were cloudy and unpromising. But after some time, the clouds moved westward, and the black track of sky gleamed faintly.

“There!” they cried triumphantly, “Just watch closely!”

Pele looked at the skies and they seemed no different than they did on all the other evenings he had looked on them. Then, suddenly, the stars appeared, not as fixed pinpoints of light, but as celestial bodies moving in harmony with each other, like in an orchestrated dance. And the two women were right, the stars were moving eastward, and even as he lay there on the hard floor, he could feel them pull the earth with them.

It was marvellous, the way they swept slowly eastward, millions of stars all at once, and how everything obeyed. He knew, as if he could see it all, that rocks were shifting and river courses were being redirected and whole mountains were sliding east.

“What is this?” he asked in a loud whisper.
”Hush, hush. Feel it, just feel it for now. Don’t talk.” Though it felt as though it had gone on for a long time, the whole event had lasted only a few minutes, and when it was over, the clouds came back into place and everything was as before. Pele’s first reaction was to get up and ask the women to tell him about it, but a terrible weariness came over him, and he fell fast asleep.

Excerpted with permission from Son of the Thundercloud, Easterine Kire, Speaking Tiger.

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