C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

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morsels that could be pressed together into lumps which
could at least sustain life. With the certain prospect of two
days' food before them, they were raised infinitely above
the status of nomads living from meal to meal, and they
were all vaguely conscious of their bettered station in life,
temporary though it might be. At the thought of the tem-
porary nature of the change Loa felt a tiny temptation.
Here were bananas, the staff of life. It was open to them to
stay where they were, forever, to make a fresh clearing, to
build themselves houses, to begin a new town. But he put
the temptation aside without even considering it and with-
out even knowing he had been tempted. He was going

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"home," and the difficulties he had encountered so far in
the forest made no difference to his resolution.

"We need more plantains," said Musini. "Come, Nessi!"

The two women left Loa and Lanu sitting together. Lanu
was preparing a bow for his father out of one of the saplings
they had cut; he was shaping the stave with his little ax,
fining it down progressively towards the ends, with many a
careful look along the length of it to make sure he was keep-
ing it balanced.

"A big bow this will be, my father," he said. "The cord
will have to be tough for you to draw it to the full."

"Musini will prepare the cord, and then your father
will draw it," said Loa, the contentment arising from a
stomach full of plantains making him drowsy. Night was
gathering for its final rush upon them, and he was ready to

"I sent an arrow today," gossiped Lanu, "against a bird
beside the stream. Gray and white he was in color. Oh, how
he flew back into the trees when my arrow went past him!
My arrow plunged into the marsh and I lost it — a good
arrow it was, too. When I have finished this bow I must
make many more, both for you and for me."

He chipped away delicately with the ax at the bow stave;
the fine steel edge took off the shavings as neatly as could
be desired. Lanu, squatting with the bow between his knees,
was an epitome of mankind. He was using steel and making
a bow, two of the greatest inventions which have brought
about man's material progress. But more than that; he was

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making a bow not for instant use, but against a future need,
displaying that thought for the morrow which enables
man to rise superior to the animals about him. And also he
had not invented the bow; he was copying what he had seen
other men doing, making use of tradition whereby every
generation can rise superior to the preceding one. Tools,
forethought, and tradition made the history of man's ad-
vance, and the boy with the ax and the bow exemplified all
of them.

Musini came quietly back with a hand of bananas on her
back, and squatted down to peel them and dry them at the
glowing fire; Lanu gave her a moment's attention as he
worked on the bow.

"We shall need a long stout cord for this bow, my
mother," he said.

"I will make it," she answered quietly. She licked her
fingers to keep them from burning, and began to turn the
bananas on the wooden grill.

"I could eat more now," said Lanu, and Musini handed
him a hot plantain without demur, and brought one to Loa
when he held out his hand.

The minutes passed as they ate and worked and gossiped;
Loa found himself nodding off in the darkness as sleep crept
upon him.

"It is dark now," he said. "Where is Nessi?"

Musini came over to him from out of the faint light of
the fire.

"Do you always want Nessi, Lord?" she asked softly.

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"Here am I, the mother of Lanu, and here is your bed which
I have prepared of banana leaves. Think no more about
Nessi tonight."

Loa was too well-fed and sleepy to question the arrange-

"Lord," whispered Musini in the darkness, "I — I — am
your servant."

That was a declaration of consuming love in the limited
vocabulary of Musini and Loa. A leopard snarled fright-
fully in the treetops not far oflF, and the monkeys he was
stalking chattered and bustled in affright, and the sound of
their terrified movements came down to the unhearing ears
below. Then simultaneously came the last frantic shriek of
a stupefied monkey who had fled along a branch within
reach of the waiting leopard, and the triumphant howl of
the leopard as his iron claws closed upon it. Then there was
silence through the forest.

And in the morning Nessi was not with them, although
so assiduously did Musini attend to their wants that her ab-
sence was not forcibly called to their attention. Musini
found embers in the remains of the fire, and blew them into
a glow. She toasted a fresh supply of bananas for their
morning meal. She wrapped fresh leaves round the bananas
she had dried the night before, and she bound them with
creepers to make the bundles easy to carry. Loa heaved him-
self up a little stiffly in the wet morning air, and only now
did he bring thought to bear on the subject of Nessi's ab-
sence. It occurred to him that she was perhaps sulking some
distance oflf because he had chosen to lie in the arms of

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Musinl the night before. Women had curious whims and
fads, and took exception to the oddest things.

Well, he was not going to involve himself in any of the
women's quarrels. Let them settle them among themselves.
He stepped off into the undergrowth, flourishing his flail, his
feet leading him along the path they had trodden down to-
wards the banana trees, and there he found Nessi, and knew
the reason why she had not come back to them. The quarrel
between her and Musini was undoubtedly settled. The ants
were swarming over Nessi, into her open eyes, and the gap-
ing mouth from which a blackened tongue protruded, and
over the body which was already swollen with corruption
after the long hot night. Loa saw all this, and walked
quickly back to the others, and Musini raised her eyes from
her work to look at him intently.

Lanu's thoughts were progressing along the same lines as
had Loa's.

"Where is Nessi?" he asked. "We wait for her."

Loa moodily poked the ashes of the fire with the end of
his flail, and at length Musini answered for him.

"We shall wait no longer for Nessi," she said. "She will
not come with us today, nor ever."

"But why not?" asked Lanu, yet as he asked the question
a glance at his parents' attitudes gave him some hint of the

"We shall go on without her, my son," said Loa, heavily.

"Indeed we shall," said Musini, and with those words
Loa caught a vague glimpse of himself in his true role.

God he might still be, but he was a family god now, lit-

[ 147 ]


erally familiar and not to be feared. To be humored, per-
haps, placated a Httle when necessary; something more Hke
a mascot than a tribal deity, to be led and coaxed in the
ordinary affairs of life. The powers he had were something
unaccountable but not because of them was he to be
dreaded. He might know the way through the forest; he
might at some future time again make use of supernatural
forces when he read the past or divined the future with the
heaped-up bones; he might be more than man in some ways,
but in others — at least in Musini's eyes and probably in
Lanu's — he was less. He could not carve a bow or make a
fire, and to that extent he was dependent and parasitic upon
his family.

Loa felt all this, although he did not think it out logically.
But when they left their camping place and set out on their
day's march he purposely did not lead them past Nessi's
body. He did not want Lanu to know every detail of the
truth, for it seemed to preserve for himself a little of his dig-
nity if Lanu did not know everything. This was a tottering
world; to find women not only resenting their husband's
polygamy but actually taking such drastic steps about it
was almost as great a shock to him as his original deposition
from divinity. And during the day Musini strung phrynia
leaves on a length of creeper and made for herself a kilt
which she girt about her waist. It was a saucy and provoca-
tive garment, like those which marriageable girls extempo-
rized before they graduated to the more sober bark cloth of
marriage — bark cloth took long to prepare and there was
no chance of making any here, so that there was plenty of

[ 148 ]


excuse for Musini's action, and yet the association of ideas
was somewhat disturbing. Until now she had been appar-
ently content to go naked.

[ 149 ]



The old clearing in which they had discovered the ba-
nana trees was of great extent; they had to struggle for a
long way through tangled undergrowth in the steaming
heat, climbing over fallen trees, hacking their way through
bushes. There was a wide area of young forest, where the
creeper-wreathed saplings were just beginning to assert
their mastery over the more lowly forms of vegetation. It
was a level area, and in a clairvoyant moment Loa realized
that it was the actual site of a town. Houses had stood here,
and presumably there had been a big central street, and the
surface during the lives of countless generations had been
worn down to the bare earth. Catastrophe — fire, presum-
ably — had come to the town, and had swept it utterly out
of existence, and now the saplings sprouted where once the
houses had stood, and the creepers and mosses covered the
ground. A raid by the gray-faced men may have caused the
fire. No one would ever know.

The little people were present in the forest round here in
their usual numbers, all the same, for the wanderers were
continually seeing their ax marks on the trees, and some-
times their poisoned skewers in the paths. And then one day
they met them face to face — or rather a single one of them,

[ 150 ]


first, who appeared at one end of a short glade when they
entered the other. He vanished in a twinkUng behind a
tree, from which a second later one of his short arrows came
lobbing towards them, so slowly that they could distinctly
see the single leaf which feathered it rotating in its flight.
Yet slowly as the arrow came it bore death on its point, they
knew. They sheltered behind the trunks, Lanu peering
round with an arrow on his string ready to shoot back when
a target should present itself. But the little man behind the
tree had raised his voice in a loud cry to his companions, and
they heard answering cries. Their peril was extreme; if they
stayed where they were they would soon be surrounded, and
if they moved to their right they might be hemmed in
against the river and its marshes, and if they retreated they
would come, he knew, to a stretch of difficult country. To
the left lay their hope of safety.

"Come," said Loa, looking round at the other two, at
Lanu grinning boylike with excitement and Musini tense
and anxious behind the tree.

Together they leaped across the glade, risking the arrow-
flight, to the safety of the trees beyond. Loa's mind was
working automatically; with the tail of his eye he was
watching the trees, noticing the passages through them, lest
there should be too much danger in exposing themselves in
their regular progress across successive glades. They paused
at last for breath in the lee of a thicket, and Loa could think
again about what they should do next. They could with-
draw, hoping to get round the tangled country at their
backs, or they could continue to circle to their left to pass

[ 151 ]


round the little people altogether, and this was the sensible
course to take, for the alternative meant actually a mere
postponement of the problem. Loa gesticulated to demand
silence and that they should follow him. He rounded the
thicket and they began a cautious progress through the for-
est, flitting from one tree to the next, waiting to peer and to
listen, and then flitting on. His own bow was slung across
his back, nor would he take it in hand. He had Lanu beside
him to shoot when necessary, and he himself carried that
which would deal out a quicker death than the poisoned
arrow. Loa held the chain of his flail close against the staflF,
so as to prevent its rattling, and their feet made no noise
upon the spongy leafmold, and all round them prevailed the
stillness of the forest. Yet through that stillness, they knew,
little men were creeping, with arrow on string, seeking for
them, little men to whom they were only meat on two legs.
At that thought Loa could not prevent himself from glanc-
ing down his naked body whose joints might soon be roast-
ing over a fire. And he himself, the Loa who dwelt in this
body . . . ?

He was in too great danger to continue such an unprofit-
able speculation; he shook it off, and flitted on to the next
tree, and from there to the next. In their attempt to achieve
silence they were more successful than even the little people.
As Loa stood behind his tree making ready for his next move
he heard a tiny sound, a foreign sound, distinguished from
the insect noises of the forest and, his ears told him, not re-
lated to the over world above the treetops; one single brief
noise of wood against wood — an arrow against a bowstave?

[ 152 ]


A bowstave against a tree trunk? He swiveled his eyes round
towards Lanu behind his tree and Lanu was looking at him,
with a world of meaning in his expression. He, too, had
heard the sound. They froze in their attitudes behind the
trees, utterly tense, only Loa*s eyeballs moving as he stared
through the creeper which swathed the tree trunk that shel-
tered him. So they waited, their straining ears rewarded by
no further sound.

And then Loa saw an instant of movement, so brief that
his eyes were not quick enough to pick up any details, an
instant of something showing and then disappearing, be-
hind a tree. He looked at Lanu, and Lanu had seen it too.
His knees were slightly bent so as to give him more pur-
chase for the instant drawing of his bow. Then Loa saw an-
other movement, this time a trifle more prolonged, sufficient
for his eyes to register a pale brown figure moving from one
tree to the next, and immediately later another flash of
movement followed. A little bowman was coming diago-
nally across their front with all the precaution to be expected
of a man who knew that there were enemies in the forest.
He was unaware of their immediate presence, all the same, as
his movements and his direction proved. It was impossible
to guess his future course, whether Lanu would be able to
get a clear shot at him or not. Loa knew that Lanu was
ready to seize any opportunity; a glance back at Musini
showed her standing like a statue. Whether she knew what
was going on or not she was sensibly imitating her menfolk
in making no movement at all, and as she stood she would
remain invisible to the little man for a long time to come.

[ 153 ]


The little man came on to another tree; his next advance
might expose him to an arrow from Lanu's bow. But it did
not, for the pygmy chose instead — by pure chance, ob-
viously — another route which kept a couple of trees in a
direct line between him and Lanu. This time, as the little
man paused before going forward again, Loa could see part
of him quite plainly: the naked shoulder and left arm, the
hand holding the bow, and the forearm protected against
the bowstring by its bracer of wood. The faint breath of
wind that was stealing through the forest was luckily blow-
ing away from him — the little people have keen noses, and
Loa was sweating with excitement. Loa waited ready to
spring. The distance was too great for him to charge yet, for
the little man would hear him in plenty of time to draw his
bow and send a poisoned arrow home. And when the little
man hurried forward again no opportunity presented itself
— Loa would have had to pass round a tree to intercept him,
and the delay might be fatal, as Loa decided. Now the little
man was no more than twenty-five yards off, out of sight
altogether again behind his tree. Loa could only know he
was there without seeing him; he could only wait, poised,
hardly able to believe that the little man could be ignorant
of their proximity. Yet he was. He emerged from his tree to
move on to the next, still not offering a clear shot for Lanu,
and Loa hurled himself forward in one frightful leap. The
little man heard Loa's first movement, and swung round, but
he was far too late. A swinging blow from the flail struck
the left hand that held the bow forward; the flail circled
without losing its momentum and the next blow fell on the

[ 154 ]


little man's head with its sparse peppercorn curls. After that
it was like killing the snake, raining blow on blow on a body
that writhed feebly at first and then lay quite still.

Lanu was beside Loa, dancing with excitement after his
long restraint, but his good sense was displayed in the fact
that while he still had an arrow on his bowstring he had not
discharged it. He spurned the dead body with his naked
foot, capering in triumph, but Loa turned upon him with a
warning gesture, and he instantly fell silent again. They
had made too much noise as it was, with an unknown num-
ber of enemies prowling through the forest in search of
them. But if it was a line (as presumably it was) which was
beating through the forest they had broken it by killing the
little bowman; it was the moment to push boldly through.
Loa beckoned his family after him and hurried forward
with all the speed precaution allowed. It was Musini who
lingered by the dead body to strip it of its poor plunder, the
little bow and short arrows, and the small knife stuck in the
waistband. Loa frowned at her, for he was afraid of the
noise that these things might make carried in Musini's
hands, but Musini ignored his disapproval. She stuck the
knife into her own waistband, slung the bow on her shoul-
der, and followed her husband with an arrow in each hand.

They hurried from tree to tree, waiting to look and to
listen, and then hastening on. They had just had the best
possible lesson in the results of incautious movement, and
they took it to heart. Loa saw a footprint in the soft earth
beside a tree, and leaped aside instinctively as if it were a
snake, but it was only a pygmy's footprint, as the small size

[ 155 ]


and the high instep proved — perhaps it had been made by
the man he had just killed. At another moment Lanu held
up his hand imperatively for them to stop, trying the air
with his nostrils. The others imitated his behavior. Faint
upon the air was a scent of wood smoke, the tiniest trace of
it. There was only the gentle air of wind through the forest,
which must be carrying to their nostrils the smoke of the
little people's cooking fires. The camp must be upwind in
that direction, with the women and the little children and
the old men; the line they had broken through was com-
posed of the hunters. Loa swung round and headed off in a
fresh direction, for he had no wish to come to the camp —
there might still be some hunters there. They crossed a broad
lane trampled through the forest by a herd of elephants —
the air was redolent with the fresh droppings — and pushed
on without pause. They were hungry and thirsty, but there
was neither time nor opportunity to gather food when from
behind any tree the feathered death might come without
warning. Later in the day came a storm, when Loa's brother
the sky raved above the treetops, his face dark with rage,
until within the forest everything was nearly as black as
night, and streams of water poured down upon them, chill-
ing their naked bodies and wetting their braided bowstrings
until it would hardly be possible to send an arrow thirty

They camped in misery, huddling together, all three of
them, at the foot of a tree where the earth was not quite so
damp, but they had hardly lain down when a terrible event
brought them to their feet again. The sky had demonstrated

[ 156 ] ,


his rage in a final access of mania. The roar of the thunder
was accompanied by a flash of Hghtning which played all
round them; they were deafened and blinded, and the
thunder's roar was accompanied by a rending crash. The
tree next to theirs had been smitten by the sky's light-
ning-ax, and had split from summit to bole. The paralyzed
seconds which followed were punctuated by the sounds of
wreckage falling. In the pitch-black night a great branch
fell with a crash beside them, shaking the earth. Above them
the blasted tree slowly tore through the spider web of creep-
ers and crashed sideways down, shattering the branches of
its neighbors, until it hung at an angle, unseen, over their
heads, while the smaller fragments, falling from branch to
branch, rained down all round them.

They clung to each other in terror, with Lanu howling
loudly in the middle until Musini quieted him. Indeed the
sky had been very angry with them, and they were lucky
that he had missed his aim. Yet what had they done to rouse
his anger thus? He was still very angry, for his ravings
could still be heard overhead; at any moment he might re-
turn and deal another blow — Loa clung to Musini at the
thought of that. What could it be that had infuriated him
so? What had they done differently from usual? Loa
searched his memory and his conscience. They had killed the
little man, but surely the sky would not be angry with his
own brother for the killing of a mere forest pygmy, and yet
— was the sky his brother? The old habit of believing it,
rudely shaken when the slavers captured him, had asserted
itself again lately, but never with its old force, and now

[ 157 ]


Loa's doubts returned redoubled. He might be — he prob-
ably was — only one more inconsiderable ant creeping
about among the trees. He thought of the dead body of the
pygmy, lying in the abandon of sudden death, the red blood
oozing from its wounds. The little people were malevolent
magicians. Perhaps by spells and incantations they had
roused the anger of the sky. Maybe his victim, after death,
had ascended to the sky and himself clamored for vengeance
in a way that had admitted of no denial. Maybe he had re-
turned and was creeping about even now in this utter
blackness that surrounded them. Loa thought of the un-
counted dead of the forest and the numberless ghosts —
why, even Nessi might be among them — that might be
stalking between the trees until terror overcame him and
he howled as loudly as Lanu had, and he searched urgently
for Musini's embrace, shaking with fright.

"Peace, peace. Lord," said Musini soothingly.

Her hands stroked his shoulders and his spine and by their
soothing touch moderated his terror. Such a little man that
he had killed, a full two feet shorter than Loa's own mas-
sive bulk. The low growl of thunder, far distant now, that
responded to this thought was in its way reassuring. The sky
may have been angry, but his anger was clearly subsiding.
He may have struck a mighty blow, but, when all was said
and done, the blow had missed. He, Loa, was still alive. He
had once been enslaved, but now at least he was free; a
homeless wanderer in the forest, but free. The pygmy may
have invoked the anger of the sky; but the pygmy was dead,
and he was alive, with his flail ready to his hand to kill any

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other little magicians that might cross his path. He would
not only kill them but he would eat them, roasting their
bloody joints at a fire and champing them up with his teeth.
A magician roasted and eaten and borne within his own
belly could do him no harm — the idea of it appealed to
Loa's comic sense and set him off in a roar of laughter that
startled Musini far more than his bowlings had done, for
she was a level-headed person and her husband's eccentric
hysterias still occasionally took her by surprise.

But the laughter was a more cheerful and reassuring
symptom than bowlings of terror. All three of them grad-
ually subsided into sleep as the rain ceased, despite their
fright and the wet and the hunger, and when daylight came
there was something oddly cheering in the sight of the shat-
tered branches all round them, and the huge tree hanging
almost directly over their heads — the whole top of it, and
a portion of the trunk, while the rest of the trunk was split
and rent nearly to the ground. In truth the sky had dealt a
mighty blow and had missed. It was even possible that Loa's

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Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 10 of 20)