C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

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as conscious of the vast extent of his brother the sky as he
usually was when beside the river; and he even felt a more
friendly feeling towards the narrow strip that was visible
over his head. The continual roar of the cataract worked on
him until he grew lightheaded, and pranced and brandished
the ax as he walked along; the lightheadedness might have
been partly the result of hunger, because they went with
empty stomachs along most of the gorge. It was only when
they were near its end that two successive lucky shots
brought down parrots for them to eat.

Twice at points where the water lapped the foot of the

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cliflF they were forced to climb the chff face, with endless
difficulty, until they reached a shelf along which they could
make their way until it was possible to descend again. Up
there Loa's head swam even worse than when he emerged
into open spaces, but he suppressed, as he always had done,
any mention of this sensation, for Lanu seemed actually to
enjoy being on a height, while Musini hardly spared a glance
down the gorge and clearly acted as though, given a firm
footing, she did not care whether the drop at her elbow was
five feet or five hundred. The god Loa of his previous exist-
ence could without qualms have acknowledged feelings of
weakness, but the present Loa, who was little use at lighting
fires, and who was not as good a marksman as Lanu, and
for whom respect was blended with tolerance or even
amusement, could not afford to do any such thing. It was
only rarely nowadays that Loa would even admit that he
was hungry, although it is to be doubted if the appearance
of stoical indifference that he cultivated made much impres-
sion on Musini.

The gorge gradually flattened out without any abrupt
change; the surface of the river gradually became wider and
less studded with rocks, and its course became slower. It was
not until they found themselves among trees and enjoying
the mushrooms and white ants of the forest that they real-
ized the gorge had ended. What really brought it home to
them was Loa's noticing of a creeper carelessly lying be-
tween two trees — just too carelessly; concealed behind the
tree was a bent bow with an arrow on the string, to be
loosed at a touch on the creeper. They were back among the

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little people again; all along the gorge they had seen no sign
of them.

This side of the cataract the river seemed to run
straighter, without so many turns, and consequently with-
out being so marshy at the banks, so that it was a little sur-
prising when they found themselves entering into an area
of bog which seemed to extend a long way inland. It was
soon obvious that they could not struggle through it, and
so they turned to their left (left-handed away from the
river, right-handed towards it, as always) to seek high
ground. Keeping to the forest rim, at the fringe of the
marsh, they were forced to make two days' detour; it was
on the afternoon of the second day that they came out upon
a prospect that halted them abruptly. It was only a little
bluff upon which they stood, but it commanded a wide
view. To their right was the reedy marsh, with occasional
trees standing in it, and with water visible here and there
among the reeds, and far beyond it they could just see the
broad surface of the river. But in front of them, at their
feet, lay another river.

It was nothing like the size of the big river, but it was far
greater than the numerous little threads of water through
which they had splashed in the course of their journey. One
might shoot an arrow across it, hardly even drawing the
arrow to the head, but there was no leaping across it or
splashing through it, that was obvious. There were black
depths in that river, here where it made ready to join with
the bigger river, wherein devilish creatures might well live.
It was an obstacle they could not pass.

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"So," said Musini at Loa's side. "Another river."

She looked at him sidelong. There may even have been
something of malice — at least of bitter amusement — in
her glance, as though to question what the god Loa proposed
to do in these new circumstances. As Musini advanced in her
pregnancy, in that essentially womanly business, she was
inclined to leave men's affairs more to men, and to withdraw
into herself. It was plain that she washed her hands of all
responsibility for the present situation.

"What next. Father?" asked Lanu, eagerly. He still had
faith in his father's superior intellect and experience.

"Wait, my son," said Loa, as ponderously as he could
while trying to keep despair out of his voice.

He sat himself down upon the bluff, at the foot of a great
tree, and addressed himself again to a study of the landscape

— more to keep despair out of his mind than for any other
reason. Down to his right spread the marshes of the river
junction — actually the delta of the tributary — alive with
birds, reedy and marshy and everywhere intersected by
water channels. Ahead of him lay the little river, little by
comparison but immeasurably wide when their own help-
lessness was taken into account. To his left the river wound
among the trees of the forest out of sight, and behind him

— he knew what was behind him. In his mind fluttered the
notion, not very well defined, that all rivers have their
sources somewhere, so that by turning to his left he could
follow the tributary upstream until it became passable, and
then, crossing it and turning to his right, he could follow it
back again to this junction. The notion fluttered in his mind

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and passed out again. He had not yet learned enough about
the world; he might have thought of such a scheme had the
obstacle before him been smaller, had it been such that he
could nearly jump across it, but he could not really believe
that such a major stream as this could start from nothing.

In that case the problem was insoluble. Even the old trick
of pressing his fists into his eyes was of no help. He pressed
until wheels of fire circled in his sight, and he reached no
conclusion; he only fell into despair. Musini and Lanu
waited by his side for him to announce his decision, and he
said nothing, sitting morose and silent against the tree. It
was easy enough to fall into apathy, to sit there not thinking
at all, with all his thinking processes clogged by despair,
while dark shadows played in his mind. So far during all this
while, ever since he had assumed command of the party, he
had been borne up by faith, by that much of the blind be-
lief in his own powers which had survived his capture by the
raiders, or by a mere animal fatalism which had urged him
along. Now all this was at an end; everything was in ruins.
He sat there conscious of nothing save misery and depres-

In time Lanu and Musini became restless.

"Father," said Lanu.

"Lord," said Musini. "Loa. Husband."

She raised her voice with each word; it was the first time
in her life that even she had ventured to address Loa by the
familiar expression "husband," but she could not rouse Loa
from his apathy. She put her hand on his shoulder and shook
him gently.

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"Leave me in peace," said Loa, heavily, without raising
his eyes to her face. "Peace" was not a fair description of his
state of mind, but it would serve in comparison with what
he would feel if he were roused and set to thinking again.
And he was tired, mortally weary. Lanu and Musini ex-
changed glances. It was obvious that there was no reasoning
with him when he was in this mood.

"Come," said Musini to her son. "Let us gather food."

Loa stayed where he was in his melancholy for all the rest
of that day. He did not shake off his mood even when
Musini came to him in the evening and told him that food
was ready for him. The thought of food roused him suffi-
ciently to get him stiffly to his feet to walk back among the
trees where the others had lighted a fire, but he sat and ate
his food silently, his brooding depression conveying itself
to Musini and Lanu so that they talked, when they talked
at all, in whispers. And when he had eaten he lay down and
slept with no more words either; he slept heavily, oppressed
by formless dreams, so that he awoke in the morning unre-
freshed and as deeply sunk in apathy as before. Lanu and
Musini looked at him as he sat staring at the ashes of last
night's fire without seeing them. They shook their heads and
moved silently about him.

Then they heard sounds, sounds which penetrated even
in Loa's consciousness and roused him instantly, which
keyed them all up and which set Loa grasping for his bow
and arrows and then started them all creeping silently back
to the riverbank; not breathing a word to each other, creep-
ing like beasts of prey towards the source of the noise. Loa

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wriggled like a snake for the last yard or two to the point
where he could see the river. With his chin buried in the
leafmold he peered over a root at the base of the tree, show-
ing no more than his eyes as he gazed down the brief de-
clivity at the water. It was a canoe, not one of the big canoes
he had seen casting nets in the river, but a smaller craft al-
together, tiny and cranky, hardly larger than was necessary
to hold the two men who sat in it, propelling it slowly along
with their paddles. They were big men, much scarred and
tattooed, and the one in front wore on his head an ornament
of gray feathers, and there were bracelets round the arms
of the one in the back. Their paddles touched upon the
sides of the canoe as they worked; that was one of the
noises that had attracted Loa's attention, and now and
then they exchanged a word — that was the other noise.
One of them laughed, and clearly they felt themselves in
no danger.

But they were well out in the middle of the river, and al-
ready a little downstream of where Loa lay. It would be a
long arrow flight that would reach them, and if they died
there in the middle of the river they were as much out of
reach as the other side of the river was. Loa turned his head
slowly to where Lanu lay in like concealment. Lanu had the
same grasp of the situation. He was lying perfectly still
merely watching, and when his eyes met Loa's their lack of
expression told Loa that he, too, could see no reason for
immediate action. They watched the canoe paddle slowly
down the river, far out of reach, but not out of sight. It
turned into one of the minor channels among the reeds, and

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Loa waited long before he rose and cautiously led the way
among the trees at the water's edge in pursuit. With the pa-
tience of the leopard on the tree branch, with the cunning
of man, they crept after the canoe, slipping from tree to
tree, wading through marshy patches, standing stock-still
behind cover when there was the least chance of being ob-

Loa found it hard to understand what the men in the
canoe were doing, especially as frequently they stopped out
of sight for long intervals in one of the narrow reedy chan-
nels. On the occasions when he could see them one or the
other of them leaned perilously over the side of the canoe
and drew something out of the water, and sometimes he
would toss something white into the bottom of the boat —
these mysterious fish, Loa supposed, which Lanu and Musini
had talked about. But once they stopped for a long time
still, with one man standing in the canoe — all Loa could
see was the black dot of the man's head over the level of the
reeds. This stop explained itself. Loa saw the man's arm rise
in the unmistakable gesture of bending and loosing a bow;
the canoe had been waiting for one of the innumerable
marsh birds to come within range.

The canoe threaded its way in and out among the reeds,
and Loa watched it with his interminable patience; patience
the more laudable because he was not waiting for something
certain, nor even for any definite possibility. He was just
waiting, in case something, he knew not what, should hap-
pen. He and Lanu were close to the water's edge here, each
behind a tree. Before them ran one of the reedy channels of

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the delta; about them was marshy land, not impassable, with
the roots of the trees growing in it — Musini was farther
back, waiting too, with the same patience. About them
brooded the sweltering heat and the deep silence of the for-
est, and the reek of the delta was in their nostrils. The dis-
tant cry of birds only served to accentuate the silence about
them as they stood like statues, not daring to move because
the canoe was out of sight and they did not know where or
when it would reappear. Then they heard sounds, coming
from not far away — almost the same sounds as had first
broken in upon Loa's apathy, the sound of wood against
wood, the murmur of voices, even a laugh like the one they
had heard before. Loa's muscles tightened; he notched his
bowstring into his arrow and half drew it. He could see that
Lanu was doing exactly the same. The canoe emerged round
the corner of the reedy channel, heading down it straight
towards them. Loa waited with his bow bent, as the canoe
crawled along towards them, ever so slowly. At long arrow
range the canoe stopped, and again one of the men leaned
over the side — Loa could see the canoe heel over danger-
ously — to draw something out of the water and examine it
and drop it in again, something that looked like a basket of
reeds. Then the canoe resumed its course towards them,
rocking a little with the strokes of the paddlers, yawing a
little from side to side of the channel. Loa was actually
quivering, so tensely expectant was he, but he must wait —
wait — wait. But now the moment had come, with the
canoe close beside him, not twenty feet from his arrowhead.
He stepped out and drew his bow to the full and loosed,

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seized another arrow and loosed again, and yet a third time.
Lanu's bow twanged beside him. At that close range the
hard wooden arrowhead, hardened in the fire and sharp-
ened to a needlepoint, could penetrate easily even through
something as tough and as elastic as human skin. Loa's first
arrow struck the man in the bow of the boat below the arm-
pit and went in deep between the ribs. His second arrow
struck lower and farther forward and penetrated as deeply.
Even without the poison on the heads those wounds were
mortal. Loa used his third arrow on the second man, who
had turned an astonished face towards them with Lanu's
arrows sticking in his back and his arm. Loa's arrow
whizzed in at the opened mouth at the same moment as
Lanu's third arrow struck him in the breast. He fell back-
wards, tipping over the crazy dugout. Both bodies vanished
beneath the dark surface of the backwater, and the canoe,
filled with water, floated with only a strip of gunwale show-
ing. Beside it floated a collection of debris — the two pad-
dles, a couple of dead birds, half a dozen white-bellied fish,
a bow and some arrows, a wooden bailer.

Loa and Lanu stood by the bank waiting for the boatmen
to reappear, but the dark water was undisturbed as Musini
came up and stood beside them.

"They are dead?" asked Musini.

"They are there," said Loa, pointing into the backwater.
With the relief from tension and from his apathy of yester-
day his voice sounded cracked and unnatural.

"They are dead!" said Lanu. "We killed them, Loa and
L With our arrows from here we killed them. How sur-

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prised they were when we stepped forward with our bows
bent. We struck as the snake strikes. "We — "

"Peace, son," said Musini, breaking in on his rhapsody.
"And now? The men are dead, and the boat is there."

It was like Musini to call attention to the difficulties
ahead. The canoe, just showing above the water, floated five
yards from the bank, quite beyond their reach, and Loa was
a trifle nonplused.

"I can get it," said Lanu, eagerly.

He took the ax and severed a creeper which climbed the
tree beside which they stood, and then, dragging at it with
all his weight, he tore it down from its anchorage far
enough to be able to sever it again, cutting oflf a piece
twenty feet long.

"See," said Lanu, and, standing carefully at the water's
edge, he cast the end of the creeper over the canoe. When he
dragged the creeper in the canoe undoubtedly moved, and
came an inch or two nearer. Another cast just moved it

"Ha!" said Musini, her interest and approval caught.

She looked round her and approached a fallen branch and
was going to cut a section from it with the ax, but a glance
from her brought Loa to her side, for there was something
vaguely improper about a woman using cutting tools of
steel. Loa cut off the length she indicated and Musini has-
tened to fasten it to the end of Lanu's creeper. Now a bold
cast beyond the canoe, and a careful pulling in, brought the
waterlogged boat much nearer, and two or three further at-

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tempts brought it so close that it grounded beside the bank
where they could just reach it.

"And now?" said Musini again.

For answer Lanu leaned far out from the bank and took
hold of the gunwale of the canoe, heaving at it. "Water
lapped over the side out of it, and Loa came to his help.
With a powerful heave they were able to pour a good deal
of the water out, so that the canoe floated against the
bank with a fair amount of freeboard. Lanu began to
climb in.

"No! No!" said Musini in sudden panic.

She had qualms about this enterprise; the water of the
backwater was dark and mysterious, and boats were strange
things, and she had fears for her son, but Loa put his hand
on her shoulder and restrained her. Lanu climbed into the
canoe with a laugh which was checked when the crazy craft
wobbled violently under him so that he nearly capsized it
again. Common sense made him sit down in the water in the
bottom and stabilize the boat a little; he laughed again, but
a trifle nervously, and the nervousness was the more percep-
tible when he glanced round and saw that the canoe had left
the bank and he was drifting free. But after all, he had been
in a canoe before, when he and his mother had been cap-
tured; he knew one could float in one and survive the ex-
perience, and his father had told him much about them with
an inaccuracy Lanu knew nothing about.

His momentum carried him out to the floating material,
and he reached out — with a sudden hesitation on account

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of the lurches of the canoe — and took a paddle. He waved
it triumphantly and was about to try to use it when his eye
caught sight of the bailer floating beside him; he had seen
a bailer used on his short previous voyage. He took the
bailer and set the water flying out of the boat, laughing ex-
citedly again now. With the boat nearly empty he tried to
pick up the other floating things. He had to use the paddle
he had to get to the other one, and his first amateurish digs
sent the little boat circling round in a quite unpredictable
fashion, and his attempts at managing it made it rock
frighteningly again. But soon he had picked up paddle and
bow and arrows and fish and all, looking back at his parents
with all his teeth flashing in a grin, while they for their part
regarded him with parental pride — combined with a little
of the consternation of the hen who has mothered duck-
lings. It was only a few moments before the obvious fact
was brought home to Lanu that the canoe turned away
from the paddle; by taking a stroke first on one side and
then on the other he was able to propel it in some sort of
straight line. It was wonderful. He headed the boat towards
where his parents stood, and after one or two failures man-
aged to come up beside them. Loa leaned over and took hold
of the side and drew it against the bank.

"We have a canoe!" said Lanu in ecstasy.

Perhaps Musini felt that she did not want to be outdone
in the matter of innovations.

"And there are fish," she said. "Give me that one, Lanu.
I am hungry."

Lanu handed her the fish and Musini took it in her two

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hands. Only once before had she eaten fish, and then it had
taken some coaxing on the part of the old woman who had
guarded her to induce her to do it, but she set about it now
with a determined nonchalance designed to impress her
menfolk. She took a determined bite out of the fish's belly.

"Good," she said, with her mouth full.

The flesh was full of bones, and somewhat insipid, but for
a hungry woman it was excellent food.

"Give me one too," said Loa.

They all three of them devoured the raw fish; it was not
until he began his second one that Loa learned something of
the trick of stripping the flesh from the backbone with his
teeth, and also convinced himself that neither head nor fins
were edible. He swallowed a good many bones but even so
the fish constituted one of the few satisfactory meals he had
lately had. Loa tossed the last backbone into the river. He
was revivified, without a thought for the two dead men
lying under the black surface of the backwater.

"Now do we cross the water?" asked Lanu, still in ecstasy.

That was a strange question to Loa, and he hesitated be-
fore replying. Could he bring himself to entrust his godlike
person to the unstable surface of the water, under the glare
of the unsympathetic sky? There was the kindly forest at
his back, and under his feet was the earth, marshy at the
moment but reassuringly solid compared with the unfa-
miliar element before him. All the conservatism of savagery,
the fears of ignorance, raised a turmoil within him as he
faced the decision. But there was only one thing to say, and
he said it.

[ 217 ]



The difficulties were obvious; the canoe was far too tiny
to carry three people, they were down in the delta of the
tributary, and they knew almost nothing about managing
a canoe. Musini took charge of the details; gods might have
divine inspirations, but it needed her to put them into exe-

"Let us go back to where we saw it first," she said. "Loa,
we can walk there, if you, Lanu, can make that thing come
along with us."

That was what they did, Loa and Musini walking along
the water's edge carrying the impedimenta while Lanu
struggled to paddle along beside them. He had untold diffi-
culties with the little craft, more than once turning com-
plete circles as he tried to propel her along, to Musini's acute
but unvoiced anxiety, but eventually they reached the point
above the delta where the last distributary parted from the
river and the channel was well defined. On the other side
lay the forest and the way home. Musini oflFered herself up
for sacrifice.

"Take me over," she said to Lanu. "Then you can return
for Loa."

She made ready to get into the canoe.

"Take care! Take care!" squeaked Lanu, by now thor-
oughly familiar with the instability of the dugout. It rocked
violently, but Lanu contrived to keep it the right way up
as Musini lowered herself into the bottom, clinging desper-
ately to the gunwales. Her additional weight had grounded
the boat forward, but Lanu shoved her free and began to

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paddle gingerly away from the bank, while Loa watched in
frantic anxiety mingled with a strange pride. He saw the
canoe circle in midstream, and he watched it take its erratic
course across the river. At last he saw it reach the other side,
and he saw Musini heave her growing bulk out of the boat
and climb out onto the bank. There was a pause while Musini
received the things which she cannily decided should be
handed up to her without being imperiled by another cross-
ing, and then the canoe came back across the water, Lanu
grinning in triumph as he paddled. Loa climbed cautiously
in, only half -hearing the warnings and advice which Lanu
poured out. It was both sickly and frightening to feel the
boat rock beneath him. With one hand he gripped the pre-
cious ax and with the other he clung like death to the edge
of the boat.

"Sit in the middle. Father," said Lanu, tone and grammar
both showing a deplorable lack of respect for a parent and
elder, let alone for a god.

Loa shifted his position by a terrified half -inch; the vio-
lent reaction produced by the least movement reduced him
to idiocy. Lanu gave up the hope of attaining perfect balance
and started to paddle, and Loa found the forest receding

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Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 14 of 20)