C. S. (Cecil Scott) Forester.

The sky and the forest online

. (page 9 of 20)
Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 9 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

stared round down the twilit avenues between the trees with
some uncertainty.

"It was this way that we came," said Lanu. "You can see
the tracks. That leads to the path you were following with
the gray-faced men."

"That is the way we shall go," said Loa. "They will have

[ 127 ]


gone far onward by the time we reach the path again."

And with that, with so Httle ceremony, they began their
vast and precarious journey. It was as well that Lanu had
made his explanation regarding the tracks, for Loa's un-
skilled eye could see nothing on the monotonous leafmold.
Even Lanu's sharp eyes were put to a severe test, as the pro-
fuse rains at dawn had gone far to obliterate the heavy
traces they had left in their flight from the slavers. Lanu
went in front, his bow and arrow ready for instant action;
the others spread out behind him, looking about them as
they walked, seeking something — anything — that would
relieve in small measure the pangs of hunger that afflicted
them the moment they admitted to themselves that they
were hungry. Musini found a cluster of fine white mush-
rooms, and she brought the largest to Loa. It was wonderful
to set one's teeth in the firm white flesh, to taste the keen
pungent flavor of the raw mushroom, to swallow it down
into a stomach that complained bitterly of being empty.
Other finds of Musini's she shared with Lanu. Nessi plod-
ded along by herself; what she found went into her own

They came to the boggy stream which they had crossed
yesterday in their flight; the leafmold under their feet grew
less and less resilient, and water oozed out of it as they trod;
soon Lanu turned back towards them in despair.

*'I do not know where we went," he said pathetically. **I
can see no more."

He had been proud to guide them up to this moment, and
now he was pitifully aware of his shortcomings, no longer a

[ 128 ]


pert young man, but a child again. And once more they all
looked at Loa, while round them the silent forest waited for
his decision.

"I will tell you which way we shall go," said Loa — he
said it to comfort Lanu more than for any other reason, for
he had no plan in his mind at that moment.

He looked round him at the silent trees, at the glades
opening up around him. He could not think while he looked
at them, and so he pressed his fists against his eyes as a stimu-
lus to thought, pressed them firmly in as he used to do when
he was a god and had a decision to make. The turning lights
before his eyes were not disturbing like those silent glades.
His mind grappled with the problem, to bear it down by
sheer strength like an unpracticed giant overpowering a
skilled lightweight wrestler. Seeping through this bog was
a little river, a childish version of the big river wherein his
sister the moon was wont to hide herself. The superstitions
of his lifetime warred with the hard logic inculcated by his
recent experiences, for his first tendency was to think of the
little stream as being endowed with human likes and dis-
likes, as being likely to wander here and there in accordance
with its own whim, stopping if it saw fit, going on or going
back if it saw fit. But he made himself realize that rivers run
eternally in the same way, that some unchangeable law
made them do so, just as water would always run out of a
tilted bowl. A weak mortal — or an unguided god, for Loa
was not quite ready to admit his mortality to himself —
might wander in the forest in a thousand directions with no
definition of route at all. But a stream must flow from some-

[ 129 ]


where to somewhere. It at least had a unity of purpose a
human could not display.

"Where is the water?" he asked of Lanu, taking his hands
from his eyes.

"It is here, my father," said Lanu.

"Lord," interposed Musini, correcting him.

"No," said Loa. "We are men together, and I am father
of Lanu."

Lanu's delighted grin was ample reward for the conde-
scension the fondness of Loa's heart had evoked. They
plodded through the mud to where the little stream lay be-
tween its flat banks; the trees met above it, and all about
them their black and naked roots twined over the mud. Loa
plucked a fragment of bark from a tree trunk and dropped
it into the center of the stream while the others breathlessly
awaited his decision. The current here was hardly percep-
tible, but very slowly the bit of bark moved with the water
relative to the bank; Loa was watching it as intently as he
had ever watched the heaped rib bones in the firelight. He
noted the motion, and looked downstream to where the lit-
tle river lost itself to view amid the trees.

"That is the way we shall go," he said.

He said it with all his natural authority; he made no at-
tempt to analyze the motives that had brought about this
decision. Enough confidence In his powers still lingered with
him for him to feel that whatever he might be guided to do
must be right. And he was sustained in his confidence by the
reception given to his decision by the others. They were lost
in the forest, uneasy, aimless, and their misgivings had re-

[ I3<5 ]


turned with redoubled force when Lanu had lost the track.
It was intensely reassuring to them for someone to set them
on the move again in accordance with some definite plan,
any plan, especially when they could feel that Loa's super-
natural powers would ensure that it was a good plan. It
raised them from depression to something better than resig-
nation, and started them again upon their vast journey with
new strength.

[ 131 ]



There were advantages and disadvantages about follow-
ing the course of the sluggish stream through the forest.
The marshy nature of the soil altered the prevailing char-
acter of the trees; they were not quite so monstrous, so that
the smaller species had a chance of survival; there were
wood beans and amoma to be found, and the marshes con-
tained numbers of bullfrogs, big creatures, which could be
caught if the four wanderers formed a wide circle, hip-deep
in the ooze. The thighs of a dozen frogs, torn from the
wretched creatures while they were still alive, and eaten
raw, would have constituted a fair meal even for a man of
Loa's vast appetite, but they unfortunately never caught
even a dozen between them. But if the problem of food was
rendered easier, the problem of travel was rendered harder.
Inexplicably here and there the forest would yield alto-
gether to growth of another sort, to belts of small trees and
tangled undergrowth. The change would at first be imper-
ceptible; the undergrowth would close round them insidi-
ously like some wary enemy, and they would recognize the
nature of the country too late to turn back, too late even to

[ 132 ]


turn aside, for the extent of the belt on either hand could
not be guessed at. Then there would be nothing to do save
to plunge forward, stooping under, climbing over, hacking
a path when necessary, gratefully following a game-track
when one presented itself for a few yards, in an atmosphere
yet more steamy and still than among the tall trees, and far
more noticeable because of the increased physical exertion
necessary to make progress. Even where the vegetation was
far too thick for the sky to be seen, they plunged along
through suffocating twilight until at last the slow disap-
pearance of undergrowth, an increase in the height of the
trees, and eventually the welcome feeling of leafmold un-
derfoot, told them that they were through the obstacle. In
these struggles Loa, ax in hand, would lead, with Nessi fol-
lowing him and Lanu following her and Musini bringing up
the rear.

It was vastly difficult to retain any sense of direction in
that kind of jungle, but they learned that it was a help for
them all to echo a cry by Loa, who, hearing the shouts be-
hind him, could judge the direction in which the little
column was pointing, and that would help him to correct
his own new direction. His instincts were sound enough to
save him from ever becoming completely reversed as to his
orientation while in the undergrowth; on emergence once
more into the dark groves a cast to the right (they were
following down the left bank of the stream) would eventu-
ally — although sometimes only after a long and despair-
ing journey — bring them back to the boggy borders of
the river. It was impossible to stay close to the water's edge;

[ 133 ]


the bogginess, the sharp roots in the mud, even the leeches
which Hved there in great numbers, prohibited that.

They were lean with their exertions — the once well-
rounded Nessi was lean, so that every rib could be counted,
and her breasts shrunken and her hipbones clearly apparent;
and they were all scratched and cut so that their bodies were
covered with healing scars and open wounds. They had pu-
rulent sores where ticks had burrowed into their skins or
where the bites of black ants had become infected, and yet
they went on through the forest from dawn until dark
every day, for twelve hours each day, and no question arose
among them of ceasing this monstrous labor. They were still
faced with the same alternative, that to halt meant to recon-
cile their minds to permanent settlement here in the forest,
while to go on meant still cherishing the hope of eventually
reaching "home." And in Loa*s mind there were still some
residual traces of his confidence in himself as a god. Some-
thing within himself told him to push on downstream, and
nothing occurred to make him doubt this inward inspira-
tion, which drove him eternally onward and carried his fol-
lowers with him.

Yet he was by no means the perfect leader, for he was not
nearly as skilled in the details of forest life as were the
others. He was dependent on them to such an extent that it
seems likely that had he been alone he would have starved.
He could not recognize sources of food nearly as quickly as
the others could; Musini did much to feed him and even
Lanu contributed, vaguely amused at this big father of his
who was so incompetent in some ways. He could not make

[ 134 ]


fire — Musini and Lanu were expert at it and could pro-
duce a flame in less than fifteen minutes of work if the
materials were not hard to find. They needed a lump of a
softish wood, and a foot-long stick of hard wood, and some
handfuls of the rotting fiber pulled from under the bark of
a fallen tree. They would loop the string of Lanu's bow
round the stick, and then restring the bow. Musini pressed
the end of the stick firmly into the block of wood, while
Lanu moved the bow from side to side, rotating the stick
rapidly against the block, cutting a short shallow groove
into its grain. As the groove grew hot Musini, still pressing
the stick hard against the block, would take a handful of
dry fiber and cram it round the rotating point, pressing it
down into the groove. The fiber grew hot, the sparks were
caught in it, and soon Musini bent to blow into the handful,
coaxing it into a glow that could with skillful management
be transferred to light dry wood kept ready to hand. It was
a series of operations with which Musini had long been
familiar, and which she carried out with the skill of long
practice. With the fire so obtained they could toast into
digestibility the wood beans gathered during the day, and
anything they might have in the nature of meat could be
cooked on long sticks. The smell of the fire, the smoke by
day and the flame by night, would reveal their position to
the little people, but that was a risk they had to take. So far
they had seen nothing of them except their handiwork —
the poisoned skewers in the trails, and the deadfalls over-
hanging them.

In the lighting of fires, in most of the hunting for food,

[ 135 ]


Loa was of less use than Musini and Lanu, even less than
Nessi. He was both inexperienced and ignorant; it was as
if in these practical affairs of daily life his wife and child
accorded him a good-humored toleration, even a tolerant
contempt. He was to be reverently followed implicitly in
matters the others knew nothing about, such as the route
they should follow, but when it came to digging out white
ants, or toasting frogs* legs on a stick before a fire, he was
demonstrably less capable than they were. Lanu would sigh
with a resignation prematurely adult, but Musini was even
capable of shoving Loa aside. Loa was content to let it be so,
for it did not lessen his opinion of himself — it did not even
change it — that he should be unable to carry out duties
always relegated to boys and women. He was content to
squat and think his ponderous thoughts while the women
might busy themselves, while Lanu might address himself
to shaping a new arrow, chipping and whittling with his
little ax, rubbing down on a stone, braiding the binding for
the head out of creeper-fibers. Loa could squat and medi-
tate, and eat the food they gave him, while Musini harassed
Nessi as always with her sharp tongue. And at night he slept
in Musini's loving but skinny arms.

It was ironical in consequence that Loa obtained for them
one of the best meals they had. He was walking through the
forest carrying his flail, the long pole that had once been his
yoke, with the links of iron chain dangling from it, when he
disturbed the black snake. Seven feet long it was, as thick
nearly as a man's thigh, one of the largest specimens of the
most deadly inhabitant of the forest. Loa saw the snake just

[ 136 ]


in time and stopped; the snake was coiled, ready to defend
itself, not seeking to strike needlessly, its eyes glaring coldly
back at liim. Loa stood as still as a statue, with every muscle
tense, and then at last he stepped aside to circle round the
thing. The black snake, coldly confident in its power,
turned its flat head to watch him. Yet there was a second
when Loa had an opening, and Loa seized the opportunity.
He struck like lightning with his flail, muscles and eye co-
ordinating with the exactitude of a primitive man's, his
prodigious strength swinging his weapon at a speed equal to
the snake's. The iron links struck into the snake just behind
the head, probably disabling the creature at that single
blow, but Loa struck again and again and again at the coils
as they straightened and bent, not ceasing until his arms
were weary and the sweat was running down him in rivers.
Before him the snake still moved, its unco-ordinated seg-
ments heaving although its back was broken in a dozen
places. Loa raised his voice in a shout of triumph which
brought the others running to him, to look down from a
safe distance at the dying death. With his flail Loa carefully
poked the head free from the coils — the mouth still gaped
and shut — and pounded it into an unrecognizable mass,
and even then he was not satisfied until he had taken the
little ax and severed the shattered head from the body. He
did so with another exultant shout, in which the others

Here was food in plenty, pounds and pounds of it, and
none of your belly-aching beans at that, but meat — rich,
delightful meat. They camped on the spot; they lit a fire,

[ 137 ]


and Lanu went to work with his ax, skinning the creature
as well as he could and hacking it into vast collops — dis-
regarding its slight writhing at each blow — which soon
were frizzling over the fire and giving out a savor that
brought the water into Loa's mouth as he waited. He
burned his fingers, callused though they were, as he seized
the hot meat when it was given him; he burned his mouth
as he bit into it. Juicy meat, fit food for a god; his big white
teeth tore the meat from the bones and he swallowed it
down with unmatched pleasure. And when that was fin-
ished there was another collop ready to be eaten, and after
that another, so that the first pleasure of gratifying a fierce
appetite blended with the next of eating steadily to fill an
empty stomach, and from that he could progress to the next
wonderful step of packing tight a stomach already com-
fortably full. To eat although he felt he could eat no more
was a gratification of the mind acutely pleasurable after so
long a while with never enough to eat. He ceased to squat,
unable to bear longer the pressure of his thighs against his
bulging belly. He lay on his side to eat his last collop, and
he feebly let fall the last fragments, lying out straight and
enjoying the perverse pleasure of the pain of overeating.
He groaned in delightful agony.

It was that night that Loa added Nessi to his long list of
wives, and presumably it was because that night he was
filled with meat. Ura had been Nessi's husband, but Ura was
most likely dead, and Nessi's child was dead, and it was
likely that Nessi was a piece of property left without any
owner at all, and in that case Loa was entitled to inherit, as

[ 138 ]


he always did in similar circumstances. That was the only
way in which a widow could come into anyone's hands who
was not a relation, but it was perfectly legal and not unprec-
edented; but Loa had no thoughts about legality or prece-
dents, and neither, it is to be feared, had Nessi, when Loa
reached out his big arms to her in the faint light of the
dying fire. It was a plain ebullition of animal spirits; for
both of them it was a strange contrast, after having been
attached to each other for so long by a five-foot pole, that
added a fierce savor to their embrace — and for Loa there
was the added contrast of Nessi's gentle submission after
Musini's more exacting affection.

Next morning Musini was more bitter of tongue and
chiding than ever, and Nessi was pert and inclined to be
disrespectful to her, tossing her head at some request of
Musini's. Musini darted a glance at Loa to see what his re-
action would be, but Loa was experienced in the ways of
rival wives — he was especially experienced in Musini's be-
havior in these conditions — and he blandly ignored the
whole incident. He had no intention of being involved in
any arguments, and he acted as if he had been completely
unaware of any friction at all. He took his flail and started
off on the day's march; the ants during the night had made
a clean sweep of the remaining fragments of the snake, so
that only white bones remained round the ashes of the fire,
and already he was hungry, perhaps as a result of his exer-
tions in the night. Certainly he was thirsty; he scooped up
handf uls of water from the stream when he walked down to
it and drank them with eagerness, and then he set his face

[ 139 ]


downstream on the two coincident businesses of the day, to
find that day's food and to go on towards home — if indeed
home lay in that direction. And Nessi stayed close at his
side, all that day and all that night.

The sky, unseen above the tops of the trees, was dis-
turbed. Day after day in the late evening, the thunder
would roll deaf eningly, the flashes of lightning were bright
enough to illuminate the forest so that the tree trunks could
momentarily be seen, and the rain came streaming down in
an abundance that spared nothing and no one, causing Loa
and his followers hideous discomfort. The little people, in
their normal life in the forest, used to counter this difficulty
by erecting huts of phrynia leaves, temporary encampments
which gave them shelter for several days before they were
driven to move on by the consumption of the local food
supply, but Loa's people had not the trick of it, and in any
case never allowed themselves time before nightfall for any
such labor. They had to endure their discomfort, changing
their positions on the chilly wet leafmold, shifting back
hurriedly when some alteration in conditions above them,
some gust of wind perhaps, let loose a torrent of water, fall-
ing as if squirted from a hose upon naked skin, down
through the roaring darkness. It meant sore heads and bad
tempers in the morning, accentuating the nagging ill humor
of Musini and the stubborn defiance of Nessi. Even Lanu
was at times peevish and irritable, despite his perennial
pride in doing man's work; and if the rain came on unu-

[ 140 ]


sually early, making it impossible to light a fire at which to
cook the wood beans they had gathered during the day, it
meant going to bed supperless, and an early halt next day
to enable them to satisfy their consuming hunger.

Yet there were days when there was compensation for
their hardship. They were struggling through one of the
stretches of forest where the growth grew thick, where
above them the roof of greenery grew thin so as at times
even to let through shafts of actual sunlight, when Lanu
raised his voice in a high-pitched squeal, soaring up, up, up
nearly to the pitch of a bat's squeak.

"Plantains! Plantains! Real plantains!" squealed Lanu.

"Never!" said Loa; that was his immediate reaction to the
suggestion that plantains might be found growing in the
virgin forest, but he checked himself when he remembered
that Lanu might still be a child in years but was a man in the

"Plantains!" cried Musini as Loa made his way through
the undergrowth towards them.

So they were; desirable hands of fruit, each plantain al-
most the size of a man's forearm, many of them verging
upon ripeness. Loa and Musini and Lanu, and Nessi when
she straggled up to them, stood and gazed at them hanging
close above their heads, dappled with sunshine.

"People have lived here," decided Musini. "This was a

It seemed the only possible theory. The tangled jungle
about them, of saplings and creepers, had until recently
been a town clearing, and the trees had not yet grown suffi-

[ 141 ]


ciently tall, and the parasites not sufiiciently numerous, to
destroy the plantain trees. The plantain in its Central Afri-
can form is a product of civilization, which can only live
with the help of man, who must fell the trees and root up
the creepers to give it breathing space; the moment man's
attention lapses, the forest crowds in again to suffocate the
plantain. Normally a clearing will provide two or three
crops before the exhaustion of the soil makes it desirable to
make a fresh clearing and replant the plantain suckers. But
this could not be an exhausted clearing, for here were the
plantains in full bearing. And that mass of vegetation over
there, Loa realized, of tangled vine and gay orchids, must be
the stump of a felled tree, buried already under parasites,
and yet not felled too long ago. There was no word in Loa's
vocabulary for "y^^^" or "month," living as he did on the
Equator where there was never any change of season, but he
guessed that that tree could not have been felled at most
more than two fruitings of the plantain ago. But where
were the men who had felled the tree? He wrinkled his fore-
head momentarily over the puzzle before he put it aside to
indulge himself in the pleasurable knowledge that here were
plantains ripe for eating.

Lanu and he hacked a clearing in the steamy under-
growth, felling and dragging aside saplings and creepers
alike, so that he could look up and see blue sky above him, a
hole in the greenery which had roofed him in for so many
days, over the edge of which his brother the sun glared
down at him brassily. Loa saluted him with fraternal affec-
tion. The habits of thought of a life time were not so easily

[ 142 ]


cast aside; whatever doubts Loa entertained regarding his
being a god, he still could not see the sun without an instinc-
tive family feeling. Here there was plenty of young sappy
wood for the gratings before the fire on which plantains
could be cooked, and Musini and Nessi prepared the food,
not without the usual friction. Nothing Nessi did seemed
to satisfy Musini, and nothing Musini said pleased Nessi.
But the plantains were delicious. All their lives they had
been accustomed to a diet in large part of bananas, and a
return to them after all this time was gratifying. Loa, gulp-
ing down the starchy things, never spared a thought for the
old days when he had complained bitterly about being given
bananas for dinner. He ate with contentment, and Lanu,
squatting beside him, ate with relish.

It was not merely a meal for today; the bananas would
provide a meal for tomorrow and the day after, for, split in
two and toasted before the fire, they shrank into leathery

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryC. S. (Cecil Scott) ForesterThe sky and the forest → online text (page 9 of 20)