C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

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brother the forest had come to their rescue, for was not the
treetop sustained by the creepers and branches of the rest of
the forest?

All the same, the forest might not really be their friend,
for with their awakening came the realization that they
were utterly lost. Today there was no friendly stream at
hand to give them the comfort — even perhaps the false
comfort — of a sense of direction. Their wide detour of
yesterday, forced upon them by their encounter with the
little people, had taken them far away from it, and in which

[ 159 ]


direction it now lay was more than any of them could guess.
All the glades of the forest looked alike to them, and they
could not tell by which one they had arrived the night be-
fore in the darkness of the storm, and the deluges of rain
had washed away all hope of recognizing their trails.

"Which way. Lord?" asked Musini; her ignorance led
her to address him with the honorific, instead of as any wife
might speak to any other husband.

*'I will tell you,'* said Loa, heavily.

Really he had no notion at all, but admitting it would be
of no help to anyone, and certainly not to himself. He
squatted down and pressed his fists into his eyesockets in the
old gesture. It helped him to shut out distracting influences;
for that matter it helped to stop him from thinking sen-
sibly, so that his instincts and his subconscious memory were
allowed full play. In the inner recesses of his mind calcula-
tions took place without his knowledge or volition, esti-
mates of how far, and in what directions, they had gone in
their circuit round the little people. Something was stirring
in his brain when he stood up again and peered round him.
So slight was the trend of the ground about them, as far as
they could see through the trees, that no cool, thinking
mind could have noticed any at all, but all Loa's physical
sensitiveness was active. He had not thought at all — he
had not even made the simple deduction that downhill
would lead to water — but he could tell which was the way,
and he could point to the right direction. He wanted to go
downhill, and he knew which was downhill.

"Come," he said, and he started off, so that the others had
to collect their poor impedimenta and hasten after him.

[ i6o ]


The thought that was in Loa's mind as he led the way was
quite irrelevant; he was thinking that if Nessi were still
with them this would be just the moment for her to say that
she was hungry, and his recollection of her peevishness went
far to reconcile him to losing her. For Musini never com-
plained, bearing hardship and danger without a word —
Loa was thinking idly at this moment about how poorly
Nessi would have come through the ordeal of yesterday —
and Lanu was a hard-bitten veteran. It was Musini and
Lanu who contributed the whole sum of their small knowl-
edge of how to live in the forest. It was Lanu who knew
how to make a bow, Musini who knew how to braid bow-
strings. Loa did not even yet know which creeper it was
whose juice made arrow-poison. Musini had the domestic
knowledge, which was of great use; Lanu, thanks to his
boy's experiences in a childhood spent wandering about and
around the town, and his observation of what men did,
knew of the other arts. But Lanu's cheerful endurance of
hardship, his fatalist carelessness about the future, his man-
ual skill and ingenuity were qualities beyond all price. All
that Loa could contribute to the partnership was his physi-
cal strength and his mind, which thought quickly after his
recent experiences; and, above all, the fact that he was Loa,
the born god, accustomed to lead and to be obeyed, with a
natural assurance that might command confidence or at
least blind faith.

Confidence and faith were put to the test during the next
several days, for it was not that day nor the next that they
came back to the stream. The forest undulates very slightly;
it is to be presumed that Loa led his party on a course far

[ i6i ]


from straight, while the necessity for seeking food naturally
made their progress slow. They were hungry all the time —
hardly sustained by funguses and white ants — white ants
took long to collect and were not at all sustaining. The for-
est fruits did not even cheat their stomachs, but rather
mocked them. They saw traces of the little people here and
there, which keyed them up and set them peering fiercely
about them, and not only because of the danger. The little
people were meat, meat on two legs. Loa's starving stomach
yearned for a pygmy, and he longed to meet one alone in
the forest — away from his fellows — so that he and Lanu
could kill him and make a fire on the spot to cook him. But
chance brought no little men their way.

In the end chance — or Loa*s instincts — brought them
back to the stream again. For some time their course had
lain along a minor watercourse, a mere thread of water
winding through boggy undergrowth. And then the boggy
area grew more extensive, the character of the forest changed
perceptibly in a morning's march, and they found them-
selves beside what they had come to look upon as their own
stream — if indeed it was the original one; it may well have
been some other. That did not matter, and the thought did
not occur to them. Here was a tree round whose base had
fallen ripened pods of forest beans; that was what mattered
most, while they could hear bullfrogs croaking in the dis-
tance. They camped at once, and lit a fire, and Lanu and
Loa left Musini beside it to pound and roast beans into di-
gestibility, while they went off to catch frogs. While there
were beans and frogs no one need despair.

[ 162 ]



For four or five days more they followed the course of
the stream. The water surface of it was wider than before;
here and there it even widened into marshy pools a hundred
feet across, so wide that the trees did not meet over them
and they could see the sky overhead, and with reeds and
weeds growing thickly in them, wherein lived a myriad
birds and a myriad mosquitoes. On one occasion Loa found
Lanu crouching intent and anxiously on a bit of firm
ground beside one of these pools. Lanu gesticulated for si-
lence and Loa crouched beside him obediently. A big gray
parrot came flapping across the lake, and settled on a branch
within range, and Lanu trained his arrow round upon it
inch by inch, the motion almost imperceptible. At last he
released the arrow, and with a sharp hum of the cord it sped
true and straight at the parrot, which dropped stunned into
the still water of the pool. Lanu gave a cry of triumph, and
started towards the bird; his feet were actually in the muddy
water at the edge when there was a surge upon the surface.
A huge evil head emerged with gaping jaws, the jaws armed
with large conical teeth — the most frightening, the most
horrible sight they had ever seen. The jaws engulfed the
floating parrot, and the head disappeared, to be replaced

[ 163 ]


momentarily by a long tail that swept the water and then
vanished in a flurry; the ripples broke against Lanu's legs
as he stood petrified in the shallows. He fled back terrified to
cling to Loa, and Loa embraced him to comfort him, al-
though he was terrified as well. No transmitted memory of
hairy devils could equal that sight, and the unexpectedness
of it added to the horror.

"What was it? What was it, Father?" asked Lanu, his
frightened hands clutching at Loa's bare skin.

*'Some snake or other, without a doubt," said Loa, with
all the calm he could muster; he was preventing himself
from shuddering at the memory only by the strongest exer-
tion of will. It was his love for Lanu that made him exert
this self-control when he had never tried to control himself
in his life.

"Let us go away from here, Father," said Lanu. "Let us
go quickly."

"We shall go," said Loa, as soothingly as he could; he still
made himself retain his calm in the face of the infection of
panic. "First pick up your bow and your arrows and your
ax. We need not leave those for the snake."

The matter-of-fact words went far towards calming
Lanu. He obediently picked up his weapons with one hand
while he wiped his beslobbered face with the other. He was
in no panic as he led the way from that fatal pool, so that
Loa walking in his footsteps felt that they were not walking
fast enough, although he refrained from saying so. That
water-dwelling devil had turned a cold, horrible eye upon
them as he swallowed the parrot; Loa, shuddering, won-

[ 164 ]


dered if that glance would cause them to waste away, would
cast them into the sleeping sickness, perhaps, or bring them
ill fortune in the matter of food or in their next encounter
with the little people. It had brought them ill fortune at the
moment, for the matter of that, because all they had for
supper that night were the beans Musini had bruised and
toasted for them.

Musini listened to Lanu's voluble account of the horrible
apparition in the pool.

"Big, mother. Big — big — big!"

Words failed Lanu when he tried to tell of the ugliness of
the creature, or the frightening effect it had upon him.

"Indeed a big snake," said Musini, looking at Lanu's out-
spread arms.

She glanced at Loa, who was chewing beans, and the
glance told her a good deal about Loa's feelings; she knew
him too well to be deceived by that stolidity of manner.

"Such things live in the water," said Musini, indiffer-
ently, "as elephants do in the forest."

It was Loa whom she was trying to cheer up; she herself
was frightened by Lanu's description, and in other circum-
stances she might have allowed herself to indulge in her
fear, but as it was she cunningly set herself to minimize
the occurrence. Her allusion to elephants was apt and effec-
tive, for the elephant, huge and terrible though he was, was
not the object of utter fright such as this new creature in-
spired. Elephants were the lords of the forest, roaming where
they would; if they chose to enter the town's banana grove
and strip it of its crop nothing could deter them, and yet

[ 165 ]


elephants were not supernatural. Once in a great while one
would fall into the pits dug for them, and would die upon
the poisoned stakes and under the poisoned arrows shot into
them by brave men. Loa had eaten roast elephant, and a
man could hardly cherish superstitious fears of something
he had eaten and whose tusks had for so long adorned his

"That is so," agreed Loa, parentally pontifical, and Musini
could see that this time it was not all a pose. Being married
to a god for a dozen years had given her a curious insight
into the supernatural.

They went on down the stream, skirting the marshes that
bordered it. The marshes grew wider and wider, compelling
them to keep farther and farther from the water, until at
last, without almost no warning, they came to the great
river. Walking in the twilight of the forest, they could see
a growing whiteness beyond, shafts of light penetrating be-
tween the tree trunks; they smelled the raw smell of the
decaying river vegetation, so unlike the faintly musty smell
of the forest, but they were not ready for the full revelation
when they reached the river, when they stepped out from
the last tree into the immensity of the daylight. The river
was huge at this point, gleaming metallically in the sun-
shine. The farther bank was a mere dark strip on the hori-
zon, and Loa, looking across at it, felt the familiar inward
shrinking and vertigo at the brightness and the immense
distances. He wanted to cower back, but Lanu was beside
him troubled by no misgivings. Overhead Loa's brother the

[ ^^ ]


sky, the vastest thing in all their experience, glared down at
them; but at their backs was his friendly brother, the for-
est, ready to afford them shelter and protection. With the
moral support of the forest, and with Lanu and Musini be-
side him, Loa was willing to meet the sky's unyielding stare
— the sky that had flung lightning at them, the sky which
made them miserable with rain, the sky under which that
awful creature had emerged from the lake to swallow the
parrot. But Lanu and Musini were paying only scant atten-
tion to the sky; it was upon him that they were conferring
their blinking respect, for he had led them through the
trackless forest through all these endless days and had
brought them out here to the river, which they knew and
recognized. Neither of them knew how much chance had
had to do with it; neither of them had followed the obscure
reasoning in Loa's mind — more instinct and superstition,
if the truth must be told, than reasoning — regarding the
flowing downhill of water, which, combined with his mem-
ory of the trend of the country, had determined him on
their course.

Neither Loa nor his family knew about the possibility of
rivers flowing in great arcs; they had no means of knowing
about it. They turned and set their faces downstream along
the great river. They had a definite route to follow, and
were much the happier in consequence. They knew that it
was possible for someone lost in the forest to wander for a
lifetime in an area ten miles square, and they could be cer-
tain this at least would not be their fate. It was not easy to
travel at the water's edge — in fact marshes and the ob-

[ 167 ]


structions of the forest made it almost impossible — but it
was easy enough to find their way along a short distance
from the river, certain that it was on their right hand. Of-
ten they were within sight of the water and its marvels.
They gazed breathlessly one day at a herd of vast creatures
disporting themselves in the shallows, snorting and grunt-
ing, swimming with deceptive ease and lumbering through
the reeds like elephants in a manioc patch. More than once
they saw canoes upon the water, the paddles flashing in the
sunshine. That meant men were there, and not the little
people of the forest, either. Loa knew much about canoes
as a result of his experience in the slavers* camp, so that he
could give answers to Lanu*s eager questions about them —
conveying information that was satisfactory, if not correct.
At the water's edge there was more chance of a fair shot
at one of the birds which flew in clouds among the trees,
and once Loa himself managed to hit a monkey with an ar-
row. The little brute fled straight up a tree before the poison
began to work in him, and he clung for a long time to
a branch, crying pitifully — Loa and Lanu would have
laughed at the amusing sight if they had not been so des-
perately interested in the chance of getting fresh meat —
as the paralysis crept over him, and even when he showed
no signs of life he still clung on, far out of reach, while Loa
and Lanu waited below, almost in despair before the muscles
relaxed and the dead monkey came tumbling down through
the branches to fall with a satisfactory thump to earth. That
night they ate fresh meat and rejoiced; it was fortunate,
from the point of view of all forest hunters, that the minute

[ l68 ]


amount of poison introduced into an animal's circulation
paralyzed its brain but had no effect on the human stomach,
at least after cooking.

Not many days later, one afternoon, Lanu put back his
head and tried the air with his sensitive nostrils.

"There is something that I smell," he said.

Loa and Musini tried the air likewise.

"I smell nothing, my son," said Loa, and Musini agreed
with him.

"Yet there is something," persisted Lanu.

He said so again that night when they camped, hungry
after an unprofitable day, and after an hour's march the
next morning Musini, too, turned to Loa with the remark
that there was a scent in the air. Loa blew his nostrils clear
and tried the air again. Perhaps there was something, the
faintest smell of wood smoke, perhaps — a camp of the lit-
tle people a great way oflF, presumably. Lanu and Musini
disagreed with him. That was not the smell. And an hour
later some variation in the wind bore the smell down upon
them in greater volume, and Loa knew they were right. He
sniffed carefully. Wood smoke undoubtedly was the main
constituent, but there was a series of undertones of odor as
well. A whole torrent of memories, of stored-up images,
flooded into Loa's mind as he sniffed. It was the smell of a
town: the smell of wood smoke, of cooking, of decaying
vegetable matter, of refuse, of humanity — it was the smell
of home.

"That is the smell of a town," said Loa, announcing what
Lanu and Musini had long before suspected.

[ 169 ]


They looked at each other, all three of them, as they won-
dered what they should do next.

"We shall have to go round it," said Loa.

With difficulty he was forming mental pictures of the
situation. He had never seen a map or a plan in his life, so
that he could not slip into the easy method of the civilized
man of visualizing a map first and then plotting a route
upon it. He had to plod along step by step; at least his ex-
periences with the slavers had shown him other towns than
his own, but it was home that he knew best. He thought in
terms of home; of a town in the forest, with the river run-
ning some miles away from it. Surrounding the town would
be the old clearings and the new banana groves and manioc
gardens. Beyond the clearings there would be the area fre-
quently or habitually traversed by the men of the town,
the hunters wandering through the trees with their bows
in the hope of a shot at monkeys or birds, digging pitfalls
for antelopes — or for elephants on occasions when there
was an unusual burst of communal energy — and closer in
there would be the fringe where the older children would
seek for forest fruits. It would have to be a tremendously
wide sweep that would carry Loa and his family right round
the town without any possibility of contact with any of the
inhabitants. Also, in the neighborhood of the town there
was a far greater likelihood of meeting the little people, who
were attracted there by the chance of stealing plantains
(Loa remembered the depredations of the little people at
home) and goats and the coveted weapons of iron; and by
the chance of getting for themselves meat on two legs. Loa,

[ 170 ]


exchanging glances with his family, knew that he and they
were in greater danger than usual.

Yet round the town they had to go. Loa strove, without
arithmetic or maps to help him, to calculate how long a
journey it would be to go safely round the town on the side
away from the river. A day's march was such a variable
quantity. It depended both on the ease with which food
was found and upon the obstructions offered by the forest.
The occasions when town dwellers camped in the forest
were very rare indeed, so that — this was a triumph of Loa's
calculating power — half a day's march from the town
would mean they were safe from town dwellers, though not
from the little people. To circle the town at a distance of
half a day's march and to come back to the river again
would take — how long? Loa could form no idea. It was far
too difficult a problem for him. It meant a prodigious num-
ber of days, he could be sure, and the detour into the forest
would be dangerous in another way, too. It might take them
so deep among the trees as to make it impossible for them to
find their way back to the river at all. After all their efforts
they might be lost in the forest. It would certainly be
quicker, and might well be safer, to push through between
the town and the river. Loa put his limited vocabulary to
work to explain this to his wife and son, and the suggestion
met with their approval. They continued their way as close
to the water as they could, proceeding with the utmost cau-
tion. If some lucky chance should bring them in contact
with an isolated town dweller, the question of meat for
their supper might be solved. They were hungry as usual.

[ 171 ]


The character of the riverbank changed as they went
along. The land began to trend upwards, with the water
washing at the foot of a low cliff of earth; even the nearly-
vertical face of the cliflf was thickly grown with vegetation,
young trees projecting out from it almost horizontally. No
tree had a long life there with the cliff being steadily under-
cut by the river, for this was the bluff at the far end of a
loop. They had to keep to the top of the cliff, for the water
lapped at its very foot. Behind them the sun sank slowly
across the river, his face almost obscured in a sullen haze.

They came to a point where the cliff face was seamed by
a steep gully running down to the water; a weak spot in the
face had been deeply undercut and had collapsed, leaving
a fairly easy descent with a little beach at the foot of it. It
seemed a good place in which to camp, with convenient ac-
cess to water, while the sides of the gully would conceal
their fire at the bottom. As if to make the site completely
desirable, at the lip of the gully grew no fewer than three
young trees of the species of giant acacia, which gave them
the forest beans which constituted the bulkier half of their
diet. With one accord they halted there and busied them-
selves with preparations for the night, gathering beans and
dead wood. It was for Musini and Lanu to light the fire;
Loa saw them start work and then with ax and bow climbed
back up the gully; a little good fortune might bring them
some addition to their meager supper, and in any case it
was desirable both to keep guard up here against some sur-
prise attack and to reconnoiter the ground round about. At
the head of the gully he paused to look back; down by the

[ 172 ]


water Lanu and Musini were bending over their prepara-
tions for a fire, while the sun, now buried in a purple cloud,
was slowly approaching the almost invisible farther bank of
the river. Right underneath it was a vague speck — some
canoe, possibly, on some mysterious journey.

Loa wandered off into the twilit forest. Despite the need
for silence he had to take the precaution of slicing with his
ax a bit of bark from some of the trees he passed, for it was
necessary that he should find his way back to the gully; in
his left hand he held his bent bow, with the string fitted
into the groove of an arrow whose shaft was clasped under
his forefinger and thumb. A single motion would enable
him to draw and loose, should a monkey or a bird happen
into range. Only a few black leathery funguses rewarded
his search, and he ate those as not worth the trouble of
carrying back; he found nothing else before the increasing
darkness of the forest warned him to return to the gully.
He turned back, to pick his way from blaze to blaze — even
now his vigilance not relaxing, lest some of the little people
should be following up his trail, unlikely though that might
be with night coming on.

Faintly through the silent forest there came a high-
pitched cry, twice repeated. The first sound of it brought
him to a halt, looking about him with all the vigilance of
a man who within an hour may be hanging on a roasting
spit, but the repetition sent him hurrying through the trees
with a reckless lack of precaution. It was Lanu's voice, he
knew. Lanu was in danger, in fear; Loa broke into a run,

[ 173 ]


his heart pounding with anxiety. He emerged at the top
of the gully while it was still full daylight. A wisp of smoke
drifted out across the bronze river from a little fire; but
there was no human creature in the gully, no one at all. He
ran wildly down it, his naked feet sliding in the loose earth,
and there, beside the fire, he could read part of the story
in the footprints that had torn the ground round about it.
Many men had been there, and there had been something of
a struggle. A single arrow, one of Lanu's, lay at a distance
from the fire, but everything else had disappeared; save for
that a clean sweep had been made. A thick chain of foot-
prints — where individual ones could be distinguished they
pointed both to and from the fire — led along the beach at
the water's edge, and Loa, following the tracks round the
little point there, could read the rest of the story in the mud,
for there, with the water lapping up to it, was a deep groove,
the mark of a canoe grounding, with the muddled foot-
prints all about it.

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