Fiction: Born Out of a Storm (Episode 2)

The scales of a pangolin

In this episode the wedding party is still trapped by the storm. Tendai continues with his tale.

Audio for Episode 2 – Born Out of a Storm (thunder marks beginning and end of episode)

Born Out of a Storm (Episode 2)

Tendai spun round with a splash, then walked with long, stealthy strides back around to the far side of the billiard table. The wind gusted in and tried to snatch away his words, but it could not.

“Everyone is frightened of Snake for he is the guard at the foot of Grandpa’s table. He is insidious.” Tendai let the word whistle out through his teeth. He looked around at his audience and repeated: “Snake is insidious … that is a good word for Snake, a very good word. That word is mine, not from Precious or from the Teacher.” He paused, stood tall and still, and lowered his voice down to the ground. “Snake is insidious, and silent. So silent that even the shadows do not see him coming.”

Then he began to pace again, each slow stretch and splash taking him further into the far dark.

“Girl hopes, and the Ancestors before her hope, that Snake will not see the work that she and Uncle do. That Snake will not even think it might be possible. For Girl knows that if Snake sees them she and Uncle will be “disappeared”.

Last week they took Itai and now he is gone. Yesterday they took Kudzai, and all fear that she too will be lost, or returned with her tongue tied to her feet.

Girl feels herself start to shake.”

Tendai slowly progressed back around the room. Rudd saw him stop by Marybelle, whose big eyes were glued anxiously on his. When he began to talk again it was as though he spoke only to her … and yet Rudd felt each word as though it were meant for him alone.

“Girl knows she has to be very careful. Uncle will do what he has to with his tools, and she must arrange it so the others do not see. Slowly, slowly is the way.

Every day Snake lies under the big, high table, and waits and watches. And each new morning Girl and Uncle grow their cunning, and their plan.”

Tendai stood very still. It was as though he was wrapped in silence. Then he turned, went back to his place and sat down. Nobody spoke.

A sudden smash of wind crashed outside, and fresh gusts began to hammer their way through the door. When they had eased Tendai began again.

“Girl’s plan is this. Now, instead of reading, reading, she will become a Storyteller, a proper Storyteller, a sharer of words. She will send her stories out into the world on the pages of her old notebook. Pages that she will fold into paper aeroplanes to fly out of the window.”

Tendai raised his hand and launched an aeroplane towards the cracked window closest to them. Rudd watched the small plane lift away, his mind travelling each swoop as it arrowed towards the world outside.

“Girl is fortunate because these days Grandpa likes to open the windows to allow the people outside the House of Stone to see him better.

“I am a most excellent ruler,” he says, and the Favourites nod their heads so hard that they almost fall off their chairs. They shout that it is so. This praise makes Grandpa proud, even more proud than before. Now he asks for the windows to be kept wider for longer so that all may see him at his table. So now, every day, the Favourites see to it that the windows are flung wide, and every day Grandpa sits prouder.”

Tendai pulled his shoulders back, pushed his chest forward and thrust his chin up into the darkness.

“Grandpa talks louder.” Tendai’s voice reached down to them as though from somewhere above. “Grandpa wears bright shirts, which have his picture on them, printed many times so that the people may see him from wherever they stand. Now all the Favourites at the table wear the selfie-shirts. All anyone can see is Grandpa.

So that is how it goes. Every day, high at the table, Grandpa sits and fills the window. Every day he is in his shirts that are full of his crocodile eyes. And every day down below Girl writes more stories. Every day she flies them up and out into the world, up so high that even she cannot see where they travel.

But these stories are only writing. Now Girl does something different. Now she tells new stories, and these ones are not written down. These are stories that Girl tells in a loud voice to entertain the people. These stories are of brave adventures against horrible monsters. They are thrilling stories that nobody wants to miss. Not even Snake … for that is how Girl has planned it.

On the first day only one or two come to listen, but news soon spreads that the stories Girl tells are of such excitement that all should listen.

On day three Snake sends his wife to see if this is true, to tell him if these tales are as excellent as the Women say.

On day four Girl sees Snake’s wife at the back of the crowd and she calls out to her.

‘Come closer Wife of Snake. You are an important lady and should be near the front.’

Girl sees Wife of Snake smirk, sees her push past the Women and the Workers to come closer. No one is happy, for it is Wife of Snake who scolds them when they cannot find cooking oil. It is Wife of Snake who chases them when they wail too loud if their children die. The Women do not like Wife of Snake one bit … nor do they like Snake.

Girl hears the Women and the Workers grumble but she does not mind, for she knows that this must be done if her plan is to work.

So every night Girl tells stories of magic and danger, and after each night every listener knows that they must come again to hear who wins or loses. They must be there to hear who will be champion, who will live to fight on. And so they come, again and again, and Snake too comes every night when the moon rises. He too listens, and while he listens Uncle quietly, quietly does his work. Uncle, who nobody notices, is getting things done.

So that is what happens.”

Tendai got to his feet. He walked his gumboot walk back around the fire. All Rudd could see was the dark bulk of him, but he could hear him clearly for his voice was loud, and the wind had dropped.

“Up at the table all the Favourites are happy for there is quiet below. Even Snake does not bother them with his whispers, for now he sleeps in the day to be ready for Girl’s stories in the night.

Grandpa too is pleased, for there is peace beneath his table. There is quiet at his feet and there are crowds at his window. The Watchers make him very happy. They have come to see me, he thinks. Always they come. I am great. I am greater even than great.

Grandpa grows veeery proud. Soon his head is so big, that the window has to be opened even wider.

Girl does not mind for the fresh air is good for them, and besides, she has a hope. Girl hopes that some of those at the window who look in, some of the Watchers, will see that all is not well, and that Grandpa’s feast leaves nothing for those beneath.

She hopes too that the fresh air will be good for Uncle, for she knows he works too hard. He is very thin now. She sees this, but the others do not for they barely see Uncle at all. It is only she and the Children who go to him, and they go for he is gentle. He does not talk of soldiers, and of war, and he does not beat them. Instead he makes them toys from old pieces of wood, and sometimes he will play the mbira for them.

Some days Girl goes with the Children when they visit Uncle, for she wants to be sure that they do not bother Uncle too much, and that they do not see or talk about his work. But when she goes with them she sees that they play, that they notice nothing, and she begins to relax.

And then one day she hears this.

‘Uncle, what is the work you do on the table?’

Girl gasps, but Uncle is calm. He has thought of this question.

‘Ah …’ he says with a wink to Knowledge the orphan child with his head full of questions. ‘Come, come with me and see what I do.’

Uncle takes Knowledge by the hand, and Girl and all the Children follow him to the table, and there they see that one of the legs of the table is very beautiful, for it has animals carved into it. Giraffe, lions, monkeys, elephants, and even the little duiker are there.

‘What is this animal?’ asks Knowledge as he traces one finger around a shape he has not seen before.

‘That is Pangolin,’ says Uncle. ‘That animal, Knowledge, is the most ancient of them all. If you find one it will roll into a ball. It will look like this.’’

Tendai held his hands together and looked between them, as though searching for something curled in their darkness. Then, with them still clutched together, he turned slowly to face each corner of the room. When he began to speak again, his voice caught on the wind, and gusted out to them.

“Uncle tells them more about the animal he has carved. ‘On the outside Pangolin’s skin is tough as rock,’ he says. ‘Not like the crocodile’s, but smoother, like many bottle tops, placed each beside the other.’

The Children listen with big eyes.

‘Its skin,’ says Uncle, ‘is so tough that even the lion cannot crack it with its teeth. And Pangolin has one other trick. What is that? What do you do if you are small and a big lion hunts you?’

‘Run,’ says Knowledge, jumping on his toes.

‘No,’ says Uncle, ‘no. There you are mistaken Knowledge, for Pangolin cannot run faster than the lion. Not like you perhaps … so what must it do?’

‘I know,’ says Hope shyly, ‘Pangolin must hide in its special skin.’

‘Yes,’ says Uncle. ‘You are right Hope. That is it. Pangolin should stay very, very still until the lion goes away, then it may open out straight, and go about its business.’

‘Oho,’ say the Children wisely.

‘Have you seen Pangolin Uncle?’ asks Knowledge.

‘Yes,’ says Uncle. ‘Once, when I was with my father we saw one, and he told me that to see one in the wild is the greatest gift, and that it should not be touched, for it is like a miracle. You see, Pangolin was in Africa before you, before me, before our father’s fathers. Too long to even count, and it is cleverer than the monkey, tougher than the crocodile, and so quiet that you may not hear it coming.’

‘I would hear it,’ said Knowledge. ‘I would.’

‘Hmm,’ says Uncle.

‘Once I think I heard it but I did not look because I did not want to frighten it.’

‘Ah so,’ says Uncle, and he winks at Knowledge.

Now all the children nod their heads. They too remember that they might have heard Pangolin. The more they think about it the more they are sure they have, and that today they might see it again. So off they tiptoe, eyes wide, ears sharp – listening, listening – to see if today they too might be fortunate.

Girl laughs. She sees that she is not the only storyteller in the family, and she is happy, for now she knows that Uncle will not be lonely while he does his dangerous work – work so dangerous that if Snake finds out, it will be very bad for Uncle. Girl shivers, and leaves him to his carving.

So, that my friends, is how the change begins. It starts so slowly that nobody, except two, notice the difference. These two are Uncle, who some do not even see is there, and Girl, who many think is worth nothing for she is only a girl. But this is their mistake … not ours.”

The rain had picked up again, but by now Rudd’s ears had forgotten the storm. He did not hear the door rattle or the rain pound. All he heard was the story.

Tendai cleared his throat.

“Slowly, slowly Girl and Uncle do their work, and slowly, slowly the change begins to happen. But at first there is so little to see that nobody sees it. Nobody that is, except Girl.

Every morning when Girl looks up there are more faces at the window, and she sees now that their eyes look past Grandpa and his shirts. Now they try to see beneath his table, for they hear the cries from below, and even from such a distance they can see the people are tired. Those who look in grow worried. They want to help, to do something. So, on some days they throw in parcels of food, and on other days they reach their hands down to help the people out.

This last worries Girl, for every day she sees that more and more try to leave. She knows that soon the only people left will be those who are not strong enough to leave, and then who will look after those who stay?

Girl’s heart beats faster. There is no time to waste. They must topple Grandpa from his table. Uncle must hurry to do his work, and she must keep Snake, and Wife of Snake, under the story spell.

So Girl makes her stories grow longer and longer. She fills them with magic and adventures, with ancestors, and with feasts so big that all may eat and eat … feasts so delicious that she too dreams of their dishes.”

Then Tendai began to speak more slowly, and with a new sadness. It draped around them all, thickening the dark.

“Girl’s stories are indeed grand and wonderful, but now fewer come to listen for many no longer have the strength to do so, and those that do are too busy trying to escape. It is the same with Grandpa’s Favourites at the table. Many have grown so fat that the chairs can no longer hold them, and so they too try to run away. Girl sees their fat-bottomed, shiny suits as they try to wriggle out of the windows, but not all escape for their pockets are so heavy they cannot reach high enough fast enough, and when Grandpa hears them struggle he sends his soldiers to fetch them back. Then they do vanish, but not in the ways they had hoped to.

Then one morning there is a big shock for Girl.”

End of Episode 2

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2021

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