The elders call it forest song, that inexplicable phenomenon of people going missing from the village, only to be found three or four days later, or, like Nito, ten days later. By then, it’s too late – they are never the same again. Those who are retraced remember nothing. Except an incredibly sweet music coming from the forest, sweeter than the songs of courtship their age-mates sing at the harvest festival when marriages are contracted and the feast of the harvest combines with the feast of the marriage.
The songs draw them into the forest, deeper and deeper into the heart of the dark woods, until they grow so loud that the singing seems to be inside their heads, sung up close into their ears, their harmonies swaying back and forth and sending them into a deep slumber.
Bilie’s sister was seven when she heard about it. A young man had been missing for two days. In the early morning, the crier sounded the call to the menfolk. Forest song, murmured her mother to her father.
“What did you say, Mother?” asked Bilie.
“Hush, Zeno, nothing that concerns you.” Zeno knew what that meant. Older folk said that when they thought you might be scared by something, something happening in the village or outside it. She did have some idea what it might be. She and her sister had overheard some women talking about it when they were out in the woods, not too far from the village. Then they had run back home, fearful yet unable to speak to their mother about what they’d heard.
In the afternoon, when she and her friend were on their own, Bano asked, “Do you know what really happened to Bise’s mother?”
“Sure you won’t run off and tell your mother?”
“I’m biting my finger, see?”
“All right then, but come closer – I can’t shout.”
Zeno drew closer. “She listened to a forest song,” said the older girl conspiratorially.
“She sat in the forest and listened to a song – for five days?”
“Oh, you’re hopeless,” Bano said, exasperated, “It doesn’t happen like that.”
“Oh please, please,” Zeno begged, “I’ll give you my wrist-band if you tell me.” The two girls moved deeper into the house. It was very dark in the inner room after being out in the sun for so long.
“You’re sure no one’s home?” Bano asked.
“Yes,” Zeno responded, “they’re all in the fields. I had to stay and dry the paddy.”
“All right, then,” Bano said softly. She was older than Zeno by a year and a head taller. Her mother had died when she was three. She had grown up in her grandmother’s house, listening to the old woman’s stories until she too died a year ago. Her father was always out hunting, and the eight-year-old girl was left pretty much on her own. She was old enough to stay back in the village while the others went to work in the fields. But not big enough or strong enough to help with the crops yet. She sometimes looked after her cousin who was three, and too big for his mother to carry to work.
Zeno took out her wrist-band from a niche in the wall and passed it to Bano without a word. The other girl took it and slowly tied the red threads together. Thee little woven band looked pretty on her brown wrist.
“Now tell me,” Zeno demanded, because she had bought her right to the story. The girls settled down by the hearth. Poking at the ash with a twig, Bano began.
“When you hear a forest song, you should cover your ears and run. It’s the song of the forest spirits. If you stop to listen, they draw you into the woods and then keep you there for days and days, feeding you roots and worms.”
“Is that why Bise’s mother was gone so long?”
“I’m not so sure about her. Some people say she had a lover.”
“Hush, not so loud. You forgot that Vide eavesdrops all the time?” Vide was the village clown.
“But what are you saying, Bano? That Bise’s mother had gone to be with a lover? Didn’t everybody say she’d been taken by the forest spirits?”
“Oh, that’s what her husband said when he got her back. But didn’t you notice her face was black and blue? That she couldn’t get out of bed for three weeks because two of her ribs were broken? Have you ever heard of spirits beating up people?”
Zeno was quiet. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear this about Bise’s mother who was a kind woman and always gave her treats when she visited. Her husband, on the other hand, scared her. He would look absently at her, sometimes leer at her, and, though she was young, she sensed that was not the way grown men were supposed to look at little girls. Her stomach would knot in fear whenever he looked at her like that. She tried not to go to their house too often.
But her mother would chide her if she refused to run errands to Bise’s house. “Her father scares me,” she’d tried to explain. Her mother had refused to listen. “That’s ridiculous. Pulie’s harmless, he just isn’t a jolly sort of man.” So Zeno gave up.
But whenever she had to go to Bise’s house, she made her way there very quietly so as not to attract his attention. once he’d crept up behind her. Gripped her hard and laughed and felt her crotch while she struggled to get free. He reeked of tobacco and the sickly sweet smell of rice-brew. Zeno ran home, gagging all the way. She was white with fear when she reached home but she couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother what had happened.
She just couldn’t believe what Bano was saying about Bise’s mother. It made Zeno uncomfortable to talk about the things that grown-ups did. She felt a little dirty about it. But Bano was dying to tell her more. She changed the subject. “You said you’d tell me more about the forest song.”
“So I did,” Bano replied, now bored. “Really, Zeno, you are such a sim- pleton at times. Don’t you know that the forest song is what we heard when we were at your grandmother’s field last year?”
“Yes? That sweet melody that some girl sang all day from across the river?”
“That was no girl.”
“What was it then?”
“A spirit of the forest. Sometimes they sing in groups, like an age-group coming home from the fields and courting on the way. That is how people who lag behind are trapped by them. They think they’re their age-mates and go to join them and are spirited away by them. Then the whole village has to look for them – because they can never come back on their own.”
“Oh, why’re you such a baby? Because the spirits want to make new spirits out of them. The humans have to struggle to get them back. The men have to go out in pairs, so one can stop the other if he should become enchanted. Don’t you see, how the men stick bitter wormwood behind their ears when they set off? Spirits can’t abide bitter wormwood. I’ve often seen your mother throw bits of it into your basket when we go off to the woods.”
“She does. I can’t remember ever going out without a bit of bitter wormwood.”
“Well, if you didn’t have that, you’d have been taken off by a forest song long ago. You’re so silly, Zeno.”
Zeno put up with the remonstration because she wanted to listen to more of what the older girl had to say. But Bano was opening the door to leave.
“I have to fetch water before Father comes home,” she said as she ran off. oh well, some other time then, Zeno consoled herself, watching her friend sprint across the village square.
“Zeno, get up!” Her mother shook her awake. It was dark outside and Zeno struggled to shake the sleep from her limbs.
“Hurry!” her mother said again, “you have to take Father’s food to him.” Zeno slid to the floor and ran to the water-pots and splashed her face with cold water.
“But what about you, Mother?” she asked. “Didn’t you say last night that we would both go?”
“I can’t, Zeno, the baby’s due today.” Zeno felt a bit frightened when she heard that. When her sister, younger by three years, was born, she had been too young to think anything of it. Now her mother, pregnant for what seemed like the whole year, was ready to give birth again.
“Shouldn’t I stay with you then?” she asked, concerned though she hoped her mother would say no. Childbirth frightened her. Bano had told her terrible things about it. She wanted no part of it. But if her mother asked her to stay, she would stay and do the best she could.
After a long pause, her mother said, “No, I don’t need you. The baby’s got another hour or so – time enough to call your aunt. Your father needs you more. Now, get dressed and get started. It will be early afternoon by the time you reach. Mind, you don’t take that silly Bano with you. That girl gads about all day. She’s more of a nuisance than a help.”
Zeno kept quiet. This was not the first time her mother had voiced her disapproval of Bano. In any case, she had no intention of taking Bano with her. It was too far to walk to the clan forest where her father was cutting wood. Bano would be needed at home to babysit her cousin and they couldn’t possibly take the little boy along with them. He was a hefty child, and impossible to carry for long distances.
Her basket packed with freshly cooked food and a gourdful of rice brew, Zeno set out for the forest. It was dark still and she had to peer at the path to make sure she did not step on bits of wood or sharp stones. She was not used to the new shoes her father had bought her from his last trip to Kohima. So she continued to walk to the fields and the forest in her bare feet, calloused by habit. Her father didn’t like it at all. But she was hoping he wouldn’t notice.
Her father had been gone two days now. He preferred to sleep in the little hut they had built in the forest, because it helped him save time and thus cut more wood.
Most of the men worked in this manner, sleeping overnight in the forest and working singly or in pairs. By this afternoon, her father’s rations would have dwindled considerably. But he planned to finish cutting and stacking wood that day. So he had asked his wife to send some food.
Zeno walked as surely as a grown woman because she had made this trip so often with her mother. Ahead lay the bamboo grove. In the half-dark, the bamboos made her heart jump a little, swaying and creaking in the wind . She ran past them as she remembered the story about a man being found dead there in her grandfather’s day, tiny spirit-spears thrust all over his body.
Her heart pounding, she looked back once – but there was nothing there. She calmed herself a little and walked on at a slower pace. Later she would run again if she needed to. It was strange that no one was about. The villagers were hard-working and liked to set out early for their fields. Maybe they had taken the other path. That would explain why it was so silent this morning.
But after a few moments, she heard the loud clang of a machete against a tree followed by a man’s swearing. Instinctively, she stepped off the path. There was a large hollowed-out tree stump ahead. Noiselessly she made her way to it and climbed inside. No one could tell she was there.
Clutching her basket, she sat there silently, waiting for the man to pass. If he were from her village, she would come out of hiding. But the man was still standing on the footpath, rolling tobacco in cigarette paper. As the match flared to life, Zeno gasped and then held her hand over her mouth – it was Bise’s father. of all the men in the village, he was the one who should not find her alone on this dark forest path. She dared not even think of what he would do to her. Terrified, she crouched lower into the hollow and prayed he would walk past soon.
But Bise’s father sat beneath the tree for a long time, smoking his tobacco and cursing when it went out. “Damn this damp tobacco!” he said before lighting it again and dragging on it deeply. Would he never leave? Zeno was impatient to get to her father and give him news of her mother. It was not until another twenty minutes had passed that he finally got up to go. Zeno crawled out of her uncomfortable hideaway, shook the dirt off of her clothing, slipped her basket back on and began to sprint along the path.
But Bise’s father was a hunter – his ears cocked at the faintest sound, and he shouted, “Who’s there?” Zeno flew into the forest, pricking her feet on thorns but not caring.
Bise’s father began to give chase. Zeno zig-zagged further into the forest. Somewhere up ahead was a little brook and a short path to a field. She could run there and seek the company of other people. Only then would she be safe from him.
But her terror had thrown off her sense of direction. She realised she had sped too far past the path. But she couldn’t stop running now. Even if she was late with her father’s food, she had to run as far as possible from this man. If he caught her, she knew he would do something terrible to her.
She ran on and on. Further into the forest, perhaps there would be another field path, so many people cut across the forest to get to their fields, perhaps she would come to another path soon, Zeno’s thoughts raced through her mind as she kept running. Panting, she ran northward now, making for the places where the forest cover was thicker. She dared not look behind her to see if he was still chas- ing her. She couldn’t afford to close the distance between them.
Suddenly, she saw a flicker of movement in the woods ahead. An old woman leaning over to line her basket with firewood. “Atsa, Atsa!” she called in the customary greeting used by youngsters for older women. The woman was startled at the sight of the breathless Zeno.
“What is it my child? Why are you running as though from the devil?”
“Oh, Atsa, he mustn’t catch me.”
“Who, my child? There’s no one here but you and me.”
“It’s Bise’s father, he’ll soon be here. Atsa, he’s an evil man, don’t let him take me.”
“There, there, my child, no one dare come near you when I am here. You are safe with me.” Zeno collapsed near the woman’s stack of wood, overwhelmed with relief, with the thought that she was safe now. If he saw her with the old woman, he would slink away, not because he could not overpower both of them but because he would not dare risk the village people coming to know about how he behaved with the women he was traditionally bound to protect.
Twelve days later, Zeno’s father and his clansmen were about to abandon their search for the lost girl. Her mother was inconsolable. The baby’s occasional cries reminded the village that there was new life in that house. otherwise, it was as though a death had taken place. The women who visited Zeno’s mother had no words to comfort her with. They sat together in the dark inner room, their tears running together in unspoken loss.
“My child, my child,” her mother wailed as she touched her daughter’s clothing, or her little dolls made out of maize shells, their long pale and brown hair falling in neat plaits.
“Have you named the child yet?” a neighbour asked, trying to distract her.
“Yes. His grandmother’s named him Viebilie. We call him Bilie.”
“What an odd name. What does it mean?”
“It was on the fifth day of Zeno’s disappearance that she named him. She says the name has two meanings: The-one-who-will-be-ours or the- one-we claim-as-ours.”
“Have you ever thought that Zeno’s name could have been misinterpreted? If you use her full name, Zevino, it means, the-one-who-is-good- to-be-with. But Zeno means Take-her or the-one-who-can-be-taken. The old ones always say that names have power over our destinies?”
Zeno’s mother sat silently, nursing her son. Then, she smeared her finger with spit and touched it to his forehead. ‘He is mine – hear me, Spirits. I have staked my claim.’
Excerpted with permission from The Rain-Maiden and the Bear-Man, Easterine Kire, Seagull Books.