Sunday, 23 May 2010

chapter 6

Magic stone back in Miners’ hands again, Odolghes and me swept into the camp in triumph, my mother there to welcome us, my grandfather too, everyone anxious to hear our story – I had expected our homecoming to be one of the happiest moments of my life. Instead it was one of the saddest.

There hardly was a camp to speak of any more. We had been away -what could it have been? It seemed a lifetime to me but probably wasn’t more than half a year, if that, and in this space of time our former home had seen terrible changes. Most of them linked to our departure, too, which made it all the sadder when we found out about them.

The first thing I noticed was the tents. Before – well, I had never really counted them but there must have been close on a hundred. Now there were less than half that number. Thirty-nine to be exact. Before, too, each tent had been carefully looked after: cleaned, mended, neatly pegged out, with in most cases a goat outside on a tether and a little patch of vegetables, just beyond reach of the goat. Makeshift maybe and always ready for a new move, but ours had been a proper village in its way. Now it was like a Wanderer’s squat: everything, from the roaming, hungry-looking dogs, to the sagging grubby tents, to the scarred patches of earth where other tents had been planted and now were gone, spoke of abandon and neglect. Save for one area, in the centre, where a huge pine tree grew, and this spot was crowded with people, milling about untidily without direction, the way bees do when they have lost their queen.

Odolghes and I walked right into their midst almost unnoticed, and when we were noticed you might have thought we were ghosts, from the silence that fell and the stares we were given. Old Tusky, my grandfather’s bailiff and chief advisor, was the first to find his voice. Brushing Odolghes aside with a, ‘Huh! You! Fine time to show your face!’ he came towards me and took me, quite roughly, not at all in his usual friendly manner, by the elbow. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you’re back. Our young mongrel princess is back. He brought you back. Well, better late than never, I suppose. At least you’ll have time to see him before he goes.’

See who? And why was Tusky wearing my grandfather’s helmet with the blackcock feathers on it?

‘She’s back, folks,’ he announced to the gathering of ditherers around the tree, making no mention of my father.

Several of my old playfellows were there among the crowd: Spino, Franci, Agnes, Agnes’s sister Jet, but they gave no sign of recognition and waved no waves. ‘So we see,’ said one woman, a relative of my mother’s, almost an aunt, speaking very flatly. ‘So we see,’ another echoed, just as flat. They seemed resentful, almost hostile, and very soon I was made to understand why: in the shadow of the tree, so thick and dark that it took time for your eyes to pierce it, my grandfather lay dead and awaiting burial. Dead of a poisoned tooth as immediate cause, but since the toothache had come upon him when he was out combing the valleys in search of my mother, and since my mother, true to her word, had left the camp not long after Odolghes and I had embarked on our adventure and had not been heard of since, I was partly held responsible. Although it was Odolghes, of course, who was blamed the more.

And in part to punish me, they told me these thing all in a rush, just as I have set them down here, so it was some moments before I could sort out the bad from the worst, and longer still before I could fully take them in. Missing? How could my mother, who had always been there when I needed her, be missing? Where had she gone to? Why? Why hadn’t she waited for our return? When would she be back? Would she ever be back? Oh cruel, cruel world – how could I live in it without a mother? How could I live, not knowing where she was or what had become of her? And dead? How could my grandfather be dead? Of a toothache too? He had so few teeth, and the ones he had were so crumbly – how could a tooth have killed him?

At this point, in my strange rusty voice, I let out a wail of such misery that my kinsfolk relented and began crowding round, behaving in a much kinder fashion and saying much kinder things intended to cheer me up. There, there, I wasn’t to take on so. It was my mother’s fault as much as anyone’s. She wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t reason. Always had been like that: a hothead, proud as a hawk. Flouncing out of the camp the way she had done, without a word, just because for once she had been crossed – why, it was a shocking way to behave. She ought to have told her father where she was headed, and then he wouldn’t have caught his death going to look for her. And he ought to have wrapped up warmer, and worn his hat, and come back the moment the tooth started playing up. Stubborn old man, rest his bones. And as for the others – the ones who had lost heart and moved off already – they ought to have had more faith, more patience. True, the old Chief had lingered, and work had become very scarce and food scarcer in the meantime, but at the very least they ought to have waited for the funeral.

In the face of so many disasters, our finding of the stone seemed a slight achievement, hardly worth mentioning. And in fact Odolghes didn’t mention it, not yet. Tactfully, discreetly, he remained on the fringe of the assembly where Tusky’s push had sent him, waiting for things to calm down and tempers to settle and for everyone to go back to doing what they’d been doing when we had interrupted them.

Which was not, as it had seemed to me at first sight, dithering without purpose, but chopping down the pine tree as a token of honour to my grandfather. A sacrifice of something grand and noble that would strike the ground with force, to warn the Earth Goddess that a person of consequence was on their way.

The funeral catafalque being so close to the trunk, it was of course important that the tree should fall in the opposite direction, or the ceremony would have been a shambles. And to this end, ropes had been tied to the branches for everyone to pull on at a given signal. When all the bad news had been broken, therefore, and they had nothing left to tell and no more comfort to offer except a few more Never mind’s and She’ll be back soon’s and pats on the head, my kinsfolk went back to their task. Two to the saw, already deep in the base of the trunk, and the rest to the guide ropes.

Tusky, puffed up with importance, placed himself alone on the danger side, acting as overseer. Or underseer, considering that he was looking upwards, towards the crown of the tree. ‘Steady!’ he ordered everyone, sounding anything but steady himself. ‘No tugs yet, or you’ll trap the saw. Plenty of time, plenty of time. No panicking, it’s all going as it should.’

Was it though? Tree felling is a very delicate business. I remembered that my grandfather had used to have rope-holders on all sides, not just one, to check any swing the trunk might make in the wrong direction. Did Tusky really know what he was up to?

As if in answer there was a sudden creaking noise; the pine tilted right over my grandfather’s casket in a kind of bow and stayed there swaying, and the two sawyers shot from their posts like rabbits, leaving the saw twanging in the cleft. Everyone dropped their rope ends and began shouting at once. This side! That side! Hold it! Run for it! Save the Chief! Leave the Chief, he’s dead already! Too late! Gerraway, gerraway! Back! Back! Back! It was like being down a mineshaft when the danger gong is sounded.

Tusky, his face and indeed all his visible skin parts the colour of a ripe plum, tried to make himself heard above the din but in vain: his orders just added more noise. Then the treetop did another little series of bobs, settling each time lower, and in the sudden hush that greeted this development I saw Odoghes come forward quietly and begin picking up the discarded cords and handing them out again, one by one, telling each holder what to do and where to stand. In no time at all it looked as if he would have everything safe and right again, but Tusky, whose voice could now be heard very clearly, must have spotted a different kind of danger: a personal one, to his authority. Strutting, clucking, and indeed looking just like the bird whose feathers he was wearing, he hurried over to Odolghes and gave him another hefty shove. ‘Out of the way, Moon Eyes!’ he ordered. ‘Out of the way! This is no time for fiddling. This is men’s work, this is. Stand clear and let us get on with the job, there’s a good fellow.’

I half expected Odolghes to obey without murmur, and half expected him to do just the opposite: tower over Tusky and roar at him that he was not a good fellow, that his obeying days were over and that he was Chief of the Miners now. But he did neither. Like a large animal bothered by a gnat he simply lifted his good arm and swatted out at the bailiff, sending him flying one way and the helmet the other, and went on handing out ropes and giving instructions until he had got everyone placed exactly where he wanted them.

By the time Tusky had overcome his surprise and collected the headdress and jammed it on his head again, the tree was already well under control and leaning in the reverse direction, ready for the ceremonial drop. The rope holders’ eyes, out of habit, swivelled towards him and away from Odolghes. Perhaps, even now, it was from their old deputy leader that they ought to await the final command? Or not?

Tusky was quick to spot his chance, and at the top of his voice began calling out the farewell count with which the new leader salutes the old and sends him on his journey: ‘Ten: message from the world of men. Nine: hear the falling of the pine. Eight: hear the knocking at…’

But Odolghes seemed to have been expecting this ploy, and instead of trying to silence the little man or shout him down he merely crossed over to where he was standing, picked him up, tucked him under his arm and began to count with him. The next two couplets came out a bit confused, losing much of their solemnity in the process, but by the time the count reached, ‘Four: grant him rest for evermore’, Tusky had given up his struggles and Odolghes was in full and undisputed charge of the ceremony.

And indeed of everything else. It is often hard to put a finger on a moment in time and say, It was now that such a thing happened, or first began to happen: like winds or currents, events are never usually that clear-cut. But in the case of Odolghes’ leadership of our tribe, I think it can be traced back, without any fear of error, to that very instant. Exactly and precisely from the ‘Four’ onwards. At ‘Ten’ his claim was still dubious, at ‘Eight’ it looked to be overthrown, by ‘Six’ it had crawled back again and hung wobbling in the balance, but on the ‘Four’ he was in effect, without anyone realising it yet, not even himself, the new Chief of the Miners.

I didn’t realise either, no, not then, but I remember standing there watching my father conduct the opening stages of the burial service, and feeling suddenly, in the midst of all my uncertainty, a great sense of safety. I suppose because for the first time I had seen his strength put to use, and seen others see it too. Three:’ his loud, calm voice rang out, unchallenged by Tusky’s (which had dried up completely now: it is difficult to give convincing commands from under someone else’s armpit). ‘Set his soul for ever free. Two: Earth Goddess, we pray to you. One:’ and with a lift of the chin he signalled to the rope holders to let go their cables, so that his last words were almost lost in the crash that followed, as the pine fell dead on target, harming no one, landing just where it should. ‘Welcome back your Miner son.’ And then, with his musician’s sense of timing, while everyone was standing there in perfect silence listening to the echoes of the crash, he clinched the matter of leadership for good by fishing under his cloak for the magic stone and holding it up high for all to see.

(Chapter 7 next sunday, May 30th 2010)