Joshun reached up from the spot he was hiding in the old apple tree and plucked a shiny fruit and a few wizened leaves rained around him, fluttering down to the floor of the ancient jungle.
His face split, grinning, as he bit into the juicy sweetness, nectar running down his chin and throat, staining the neckline of the soiled kurta that hugged his slim frame. Humming with joy, his legs swinging in the air as he sat astride a thick, red-barked limb, he closed his eyes in delight and at that moment he missed a glimpse of his destiny.
Far below, on the winding jungle trail, traveled by few and visited by grazing deer by day and howling wolf by night, a lone figure stole through the fading dusk. Its feet were clad in leaves, and vines wrapped spindly legs that disappeared into a faded cloak of many patches, russets, browns and blacks made up the majority of the skewed geometric design, which topped out with a verdant green hood, ties ending in lashings of tiny skulls-with-antlers and the tiny pendants bounced and jigged in time to the white-eyed creature’s joyous prancing.
Long silver-streaked hair fell out of the cloak’s hood, and the mouth was busily pursed, fueling a silver flute that was pushing out a cacophony that could have passed for a jig if the sound was the least bit sane, and indeed if any humans could have heard it, it would have driven them mad in moments, and the animals and birds were driven away by the frenetic, psychedelic shrilling.
They stampeded and bolted away from the horrifying sound, and soon there was a silent swath cut through the aural landscape of this decaying and mossy jungle. A corridor of silence that was wholly unnatural.
Only the sound of one hungry boy merrily devouring a piece of fruit shattered the eerie stillness, and the dancer, the floutist, the merry jigster, stopped dead in its tracks.
Green eyes, lit with ignus fatuus, glared upwards from the deep shadows of the hood, espied Joshun, ignorant and unknowing, sitting in the tree, nearly finished with his apple. The flute was forgotten, dangling in loose, long-fingered hands, crusty with gore at the tips, and the creature’s mouth gaped.
From a jaggedly-fanged mouth a long tongue,split twice at the ends, unrolled and drooled ropes of sweet-smelling saliva onto the jungle carpet.
Hunger of a kind nearly forgotten shook its body with tremors and need, and it stared, stunned and shivering in the deepening shadows as the sun prepared to return the world to the kingdom of night.
Joshun crunched away the last of the core, spit out 4 or 5 seeds and grinned again, licking his sticky fingers and let out a crooked belch, laughed aloud, a child’s punctuation of joy, and rubbed his happy tummy. It was the tenth apple he had eaten today, and he was already looking forward to number eleven, when he noticed that the sun was almost gone, and no birds were singing.
The first rush of panic drove him to his feet, and he clutched the towering trunk, one hand to his belly, now churning with fear. How could he be so stupid! He had frittered the day away eating apples! He Da would be furious and his Ma, his Ma made his legs quiver with fear. She would be relentless. The glow-worm of the sun’s dying ray winked out, plunging the jungle into suffocating darkness and Joshun moaned aloud, and his mind rabbited.
He began to weep. He thought of his mother and his father and his brother Kotef and the memory of his family’s hut lashed him with longing and his fear doubled. The blackness ate his tears and his sobs echoed alone. Joshun realized no other creatures were making noises. Nothing scolded or howled. Bats did not swoop him, seeking his blood, and night birds were not calling to one another. This oddity dried his tears. He was not a stupid boy, a bit lazy, perhaps, and too fond of apples, but far from thick-minded.
Where were the other animals and birds? Joshun wiped his snot away and sniffed a few last times. He cocked his head and listened.
He heard nothing. Nothing at all except his own breathing, and his fear returned, but not the same, the fear this time was of things that should not be understood. His mother and his father both had repeated this to him countless times since his birth, and it drove them to beat Joshun for his curiosity, and they waggled large fingers in front of his face and warned him of things that should not be understood.
Joshun’s problem, he knew, was that he wanted to understand. Everything. Why not? Think of the wives and cattle he would have if he understood everything from the true name for the color of the sky, to the best lakes to fish on the moon, to the names for every plant and poison, and the secrets of the animals and birds! He would be fat with silver hoops around his middle, strung with gemstones from the river and precious greenstone and feathers of the dancing bird!
His young mind struggled to process the unknown.
It was quiet because he was alone. No animals, no birds.
Joshun’s eyes grew wide as he realized no flies bothered him. No mosquitoes. Even the insects had fled.
Was he dead? If this was Semaam, the shadow-world, would it look like this? He didn’t know. His uncles had told him that guides would meet him in Semaam, to show him the path that retraced his life, and that their faces would be shining. Joshun looked around, he couldn’t see anything in the pitch dark, nothing was shining, faces or anything else, and he rejected his own death.
If he wasn’t dead, then maybe he was alive, but something had driven the animals away.
Fire? He didn’t smell smoke. Giants? The ground was not shaking. Wolves? Wolves wouldn’t drive the flies away, and he didn’t hear any howling or barking.
His stomach growled, and a cramp twisted his gut. He winced and grabbed his stomach. The apples were going to have their revenge, and the sweats started as he squatted, hiking up his kurta as best he could, one hand clinging to the old tree and the other wrapped around his knifing guts. He groaned in agony as the gas pains stabbed him and a gurgling bubbled through him before the final vice-grip of pain slashed his insides and a blast of half-digested apple shit punched out of him, into space.
The creature, rapt with hunger and unable to tear its mind away from the forbidden morsel in the tree, had long since moved. The flute had disappeared into the sleeve of the patchwork cloak, and it stealthily reached the bottom of Joshun’s tree and had begun to climb while Joshun puzzled over his predicament.
It was a mere 15 metres beneath the boy when Joshun squatted to void his bowels. The spluttering, odorous explosion, followed by the many after it, rained down and around the climbing creature. It recognized the smell of waste, all creatures did, no matter where they originated, and it gave it no more thought than any other animal of the jungle would. A potential source of nutrients, no more.
It liked what it tasted, though. It wanted more. Had to have more. It was so hungry. So very hungry.
Joshun’s guts finally relaxed, and the sweat dried on his face. His stomach still hurt, and his thighs were trembling with fatigue, but the worst had passed, and he stood on shaky legs, and realized he had no way of cleaning himself, and felt slightly disgusted by this fact. He silently cursed apples, and all forms and variations of apples from now until the ends of time, when Hashima danced and the sky rained knives and arrows.
He leaned against the old tree and slowly breathed, trying to still his still quivery stomach. There was no cooling breeze to give him surcease. No moon rose with comforting light. He was truly alone.
At that moment, the creature pulled itself onto the same branch as Joshun, its movements so precise that the boy never felt even a tremor of its actions. It stood, stooped in the tangled limbs of the old apple tree, and watched the boy, smelled his odors and sensed his fear and confusion.
It was forbidden to eat the young. Laws were laws because laws were needed to govern those who would not lay any down for themselves. Gluttony only lead to oblivion, in the end.
It was so hungry, though, it had nearly forgotten the law. Carelessly, casually, allowed itself to forget.
Its long fingers clenched and unclenched, absently, so strong was the desire to tear off a piece of the youngling and gobble it up. The hunger was winning, it had been so very long, so very long, and its desire let it take a step towards the boy, and at that moment, Joshun opened his eyes.
The boy saw nothing but the same relentless darkness, as far as the eye couldn’t see. His stomach felt better, but he was hungry now, so hungry, hungrier than he had ever been, at least since this morning!
He looked up at the hanging fruit, the branches still fecund with apples, Joshun’s feast hardly noticeable among the bounty. He reached up and grabbed two, pulled and twisted and started to lean over to put them at his feet, when he noticed something was wrong. He could hear something besides himself.
It sounded familiar, but not. Like a far-away lumberjack perhaps. Or a group of men yelling from beyond the valley. Rhythmic and strange.
The creature was in Joshun’s face, smelling him, learning the boy’s particular musk. It scented all over his face, his neck and torso, his arms and his legs, and as it neared Joshun’s feet it’s milky-white eyes fell upon the two freshly-plucked apples. It gasped, reared back and let out an inhuman shriek, instantly panicked, and for a moment it became visible. Joshun screamed and wet himself, staining the already filthy kurta plastered to his grimy knees. He bolted, dropping into pitch darkness, not knowing or caring if a branch was below to catch him. The creature, still fixated on the cursed fruit, paid the fleeing boy no mind, it was spraying chemical panic signals into the air and backing away, and as it cowered, it tripped over a knobby stub of a branch and as it stumbled, the long silver flute fell from the creature’s sleeve and tumbled, silently, end-over-end, to the jungle floor below.
Joshun was still yelling in panic, for his Da mostly, but he called out to Senappa for protection and he hit a thick branch solidly, arresting his fall. He was instantly on his backside, shooting his legs out and down, windmilling for a foothold, and dropping into space, each time finding a sure foothold, as if his flight was protected by the angels and the will of the Gods. Soon he hit the jungle floor and began to flee in the direction of his village when he suddenly tripped over the silver flute and tumbled into the leaf litter, scraping a knee and he howled in pain.
He sat up, wincing, holding his knee and he spit on it, like his Ma had shown him, and the sting mostly subsided, dropping away entirely when he glanced over his shoulder and saw the long instrument poking out of the deep leaf litter. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and he reached for it with all the innocence and curiosity of a boy with nothing to call his own but his dreams and his imaginings.
As his small fingers closed around it, the metal icy cold in his warm hands, the creature, now paralytic with fear and beginning to hemorrhage from his eyes and ears, felt the touch of a human upon the Flute of the Woods, and screamed in fear as he was suddenly supplanted in the material world. The creature unraveled-in-space, his essence unspun at its most basic level, and though Joshun could not see it, he would have seen the creature suddenly spin at an angle he had never seen before and vanish quietly.
On the jungle floor, the new creature stood and picked up the Flute, brushing the crispy, dry leaves from its patchwork cloak, and its beautiful face was still that of a boy, though no longer human, but fey. Alluring features would beguile any humans who saw it, if it ever chose to let itself be seen, and its heart was filled with the joyous shout of a being that understood the vibrant web-of-life that nature has provided, and it whipped the long silver flute to its pale lips and whistled up a merry tune that welcomed all life and celebrated the joy of being. Caught up in its own happiness, the creature began to hop around, and then skip, jumping came next, and leaping in dance. The jungle was its stage and as it vanished from the visible spectrum, the new creature’s understanding deepened, and it changed the tune slightly, adding strands of longing and homecoming.
The animals returned, and the insects, the birds following both, the fish and the reptiles returned from their hiding spots and the creature moved on, through the vast jungle. In hours, the boy that his Ma and Da had called Joshun, had disappeared from any memory his parents once had. The search party that had been sent out to find the ten-year old was suddenly halted by the boy’s father, Eblon, who held up a hand and suddenly realized that the panic he had felt at his son not returning home had been nothing but a bad dream, a horrible nightmare, and why had he asked all these men to go find him? Why had he come all the way out here? What was wrong with him? As he stood, puzzled, the others looked among themselves and when Eblon said that he wanted to give up the search, he’d just had a vision from Uuke’bene, that his boy was gone.
Fell from a tree while climbing for kairee, the raw mango, the boy’s favorite. Eblon dropped to one knee, letting himself weep for the son he knew he didn’t have, hoping the men of the village would believe him and he could go home, instead of telling the truth and being laughed at, losing honor and prestige, to say nothing of what he would have to tell his wife. The men, their memories also unravelling, took him at his word and the party turned back towards the jungle village.
As the men argued over the true meaning of the god’s message, in the village of Joshun’s family, his mother suddenly dropped the clay pitcher she was using to fill a glass of water for herself. She clutched her sides and bent over, a sudden squall of tears and wailing poured from her as she finally realized that the boy that she had loved for so long was a pointless construct that she had made when she had lost her baby to the bloody flux ten years ago. All his naming-day celebrations, all he fights with her and his father, all the scraped knees and storytimes, all of them were just in her mind, and she wept for herself, for her broken dreams, for the blindness that she desperately wished would return, rushing in to smother her sorrow.
The creature danced and skipped. It played its tunes of joy, the jigs and reels of summer. It piped the death of the year, dirges and solemn marches through the winter snows. Springtime rang with love songs, beautiful lays and sonatas and Autumn bounced between celebration and sorrow. In time, the parents of the boy-who-never-was created new children, and their lives were treasured. In time, the creature will forget the world altogether, and will find comfort only in the shadows, only in the restful silence of death. In the reeling night, the dance goes on.