The Way of the Word

21. September 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 2

Ankhoro took the stone in his right fist so that the sharp, pointed side faced down. He raised his arm, then dropped it with all his weight behind it, hitting just the right spot.

The coconut split open. Ankhoro put the stone aside. He carefully poured the coconut milk into four recently cleaned shells.

Ghenni put down the intricately wound conch shell she had found. If you held it to your ear and listened closely, you heard the sound of the sea. Ghenni considered keeping this one, never mind what Wakano might think of her.

“Do you think we have enough shells for a sacrifice?” Miki said.

“More than,” Ankhoro said. He snorted. “I don’t see what a god might want those stupid shells for anyway.

“Boys don’t know anything,” Miki said, winking at Ghenni. “Shells can be used for lotsa things.”

“Cups, for example,” Ghenni added, raising the shell to her lips to drink the sweet-tasting liquid.

“Or necklaces,” Lejani offered.

Ankhoro shook her head and rolled his eyes skyward. Ghenni and Miki exchanged a glance. Ghenni tried to say “Boys” with her glance, hoping Miki got the message. She got the same message from Miki’s glance. She hoped that was just what her friend was trying to tell her.

“Real men don’t need necklaces,” Ankhoro said with the certainty that comes with being ten years old. “Necklaces are girl stuff.”

“Someone should tell Jamao,” Ghenni said with feigned terror. “He’s worn his necklace so long as I can remember. Perhaps he doesn’t know necklaces are girl stuff.”

“He’s gotta know, silly,” Lejani said. “He’s the chief. Chiefs are almost as smart as parents.”

“Shut up, crab,” Ghenni said.

“Or perhaps he’s really a girl and doesn’t know it,” Miki suggested, with a giggle that reminded Ghenni of Lejani on her worst day.

“Jamao’s not a girl,” Ankhoro protested, “and I can prove it.”

“Prove it,” Lejani said. Ankhoro looked so smug Ghenni hated Lejani for walking into his trap. All of a sudden, she was positive Ankhoro had irrefutable proof of Jamao’s manhood.

“I know for a fact,” Ankhoro said, raising his finger to command attention, “that nobody has ever heard Jamao giggle. And everybody knows girls always giggle. Present company included.”

“I do not giggle,” Ghenni snapped.

“But Miki and the crab do it all the time,” Ankhoro pointed out.

“My name is not crab, it’s Lejani.”

“Shut up, crab,” Ghenni said. She considered Ankhoro’s statement, looking for a hole in his reasoning. “Not all girls giggle, so if Jamao doesn’t giggle doesn’t mean he’s not a girl.”

“What does that have to do with sacrificing shells to Wakano?” Lejani asked.

“Perhaps Wakano’s a girl too,” Miki suggested. Ghenni tensed,waiting for the ground to shudder.

Nothing happened.

“Let’s finish the coconut and take the shells to the shrine,” Ankhoro said. “The sooner we get this over with, the sooner Ghenni can relax again. Hey, how about we all go swimming afterwards?”

“It’s noon,” Miki said. “Who goes swimming in the worst heat of the day?”

“By the time we get there and back it’ll be later,” Ankhoro said. “Swimming’ll be great then.”

Ghenni took the pouch with the seashells and got up.

“Let’s go, then. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can go swimming.”

She held up the bag and thought of the surf-sound shell she had found. She was sorry to have to give up that one, but as her mother had said, what good is a sacrifice that doesn’t hurt?

“Lejani, I think your mother’s calling,” Miki said.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Lejani said.

“No, I heard it too,” Ankhoro said. “You’d better go see what she wants.”

“Will you wait for me?”

“We have to go to the shrine,” Ghenni said. She hadn’t heard anything either. “We’ll meet you there.”

“Promise,” Lejani said, dashing off.

“Yeah,” Ankhoro said, watching her leave. “Good thinking, Miki. Now we can spend a couple of hours without the crab.”

Ghenni cuffed him.

“What was that for?” Ankhoro asked, rubbing the back of his head.

“Nobody calls the crab crab but me.”

“You didn’t protest when I did it before.”

“I didn’t want her to think I’m on her side. So I expect you to remember it. If you call my sister crab, I’ll cuff you when she’s not around anymore. Understood?”

“Yeah. Can we go now?”

“Yeah.” Picking up the bags, the children set off toward the shrine. Everything should have been fine. The day was beautiful, Lejani wasn’t around to bother anyone. So why did Ghenni feel uncomfortable? That prickling at the base of her neck felt almost as if…

Turning her head, Ghenni had a good look at what went on behind her.

Why did she always have to be right?

“Don’t look now,” she cautioned, “but we’re being followed.”

“Say it isn’t so,” Miki said. She stopped. Ghenni nudged her on.

“Say it isn’t the three idiots,” Ankhoro added.

“I could say that, but mom always says I shouldn’t lie. It is so, and I only caught a glimpse of them, but I think it’s the idiots.”

“Great. What do we do now?”

“Keep walking. Perhaps we’re lucky and they just want to scare us.”

“They aren’t clever enough to try and scare us,” Miki said. “I’ll betcha they’re gonna beat us up.”

“They’re gonna try.”

“Stow it, Ankhoro. You’re not nearly big enough to take all three of them on.” Or even one of them, Ghenni added silently. They were too old, well into puberty already.

Ankhoro glared at Ghenni, who pretended not to notice. She usually enjoyed being the leader of her little group, but at times like this it was a drag. Now she had to take responsibility. That meant it was up to her to find a way out of a mess. Not that the others would have made any better leaders. Miki was too easily intimidated, and Ankhoro was getting to where he felt he had to prove himself a man. No, Ghenni would have to solve this by herself. As usual.

“We split up,” she said. Ankhoro frowned at her. Miki just gaped. “If we get lucky, they’ll split up too. It’s easier to lose and confuse one of them if the other two aren’t around to make them braver.”

“Could be one of us is out of luck and they’ll gang up on that one,” Miki said.

“Meaning the other two get away,” Ghenni said. She didn’t want to even think of that. “That would be you two. You know they hate me most of us.”

” I wonder what we ever did to them,” Miki said. “I can’t remember a time when they weren’t after us.”

“They’re bigger than we,” Ankhoro said. “They think we can’t defend ourselves, so they figure they can do anything they want.” He raised his clenched fist. “All we need to do is give them one good beating. Then they’ll leave us alone. You’ll see.”

“When we’re bigger. Until then, our best chance is to get away.”

“Where’ll we meet?”

“At the shrine. I don’t think even they are mean enough to pick a fight there.”

“If we get there,” Miki muttered.

“At least two of us will,” Ankhoro said. His eyes gleamed. There was a fierce grin on his face. His fists were clenched so hard the knuckles were white.

“I don’t think they’ll all come after you,” Ghenni said. She glimpsed back and saw the leaves of a bush move. She almost grinned. It was good that the idiots were still behind them.

Or was it? That depended on what they were planning.

“Go,” Ghenni said, running straight ahead. She heard leaves rustle to both sides. The sound told her her friends had ducked into the jungle.

The thudding of several feet behind her spurred her on to run even faster.

This was definitely one of the times when she hated to be the leader.

The thudding sounded closer than it had before. Ghenni found reserves of strength she hadn’t known she possessed, as she put on another burst of speed.

Wakano, she thought desperately, if you don’t help me now, I don’t think you’ll ever get your seashells, and I’ll be a wordbreaker through no fault of mine.

Wakano’s Throne belched another cloud of black smoke that covered the sun for an instant. His wrath shook the ground.

Ghenni stubbed her toe on something hard. She lost her step, lost her balance and fell face-first onto the hard packed earth of the trodden path. The bag with the shells flew from her hand.

Before she could reorient herself, the Terrible Three were upon her. The girl of the three, Yanag, grabbed Ghenni’s wrists and pulled her up. Ghenni almost mistook that gesture for kindness, if not for the fact that Yanag didn’t let go of her wrists.

“So we got the runt,” Zoltan said. Ghenni gave him her best glare. No way would she let him see how afraid she was.

“Yeah, getting this one almost makes up for letting the other two go,” Yanag sneered. Ghenni ignored her. She continued to stare at Zoltan.

“You’re so brave,” she said. “Are you afraid to do anything if the odds aren’t six to one in your favor?”

“Three to one,” Yanag laughed. “Learn to count, runt.”

“Six to one,” Ghenni said to Zoltan. “You’re each of you almost twice as big as I am.”

“So what,” Zoltan said. He looked away from Ghenni, who didn’t dare turn her head.

“Look what I’ve found,” Xulia, the third member of Zoltan’s group, called. He ran into Ghenni’s field of vision, holding the bag she had dropped. Zoltan opened the bag and looked into it.

“Phwagh. Just some dumb seashells.”

“Put them down,” Ghenni demanded, vainly struggling against Yanag’s grip. Yanag laughed. Ghenni leaped up and, putting all her weight behind it, brought her heel hard down on Yanag’s foot. Yanag said something Ghenni was sure she wasn’t supposed to know and released her grip. Ghenni leaped at Zoltan. She almost succeeded in snatching the bag from him.

Xulia was faster. He snatched Ghenni out of the air and pressed her against the ground.

“Damn that brat, I think she broke my foot!” Yanag whined between whimpers.

Zoltan knelt down before Ghenni. She could see him from the corner of her eyes.

“Serves you right if I did,” she wanted to say, but all she managed was an incoherent mumbling. She tried to raise her head, but Xulia pushed it only deeper into the dirt.

“You heard that,” he said, sounding almost adult and reasonable. “You hurt my friend.” He held up the bag. “It seems to me that these shells are pretty important to you.” She saw him nod. The pressure on her head let up.

“They aren’t for you, they’re for Wakano,” she hissed.

Zoltan nodded again, once. Xulia pushed her down again.

“You broke Yanag’s foot,” Zoltan said. “You’ve been a very bad girl. You know bad girls must be punished. No, don’t bother to agree with me. Not with your mouth full.” Zoltan opened the bag and took one of the shells out. It was one of those that shone pink if you held them into the light properly. “You see, it seems to me that these shells are very important for you, if you’re gonna sacrifice them to Wakano. Perhaps they are almost as important to you as Yanag’s foot is to her.” He grinned. Ghenni hated that grin. “My father always says that the punishment must match the crime. You broke Yanag’s foot…”

Ghenni didn’t see him fetch the stone, but suddenly it was there. He raised it high, held it up a heartbeat so Ghenni could see it, then brought it down on the shell.

Ghenni couldn’t help the twitch when the shell broke with a sound like breaking bone.

“On the other hand,” Zoltan said, reaching into the bag, “a broken shell doesn’t make up for a broken foot. I think that foot is worth more than just one shell.” He held up another shell for Ghenni to see. Tears welled up in her eyes when she recognized the conch.

“That’s a pretty one, Zoltan,” Xulia said.

Ghenni squeezed her eyes shut until she heard the crunch, and even after it.

“Was a pretty one, you mean, Xulia,” Zoltan said.

“I wish you’d let me keep it,” Xulia said.

Something wet leaked out of her eyes. Ghenni wished she were bigger, so she could show these idiots what getting hurt was like.

“That one ain’t bad too,” she heard Yanag say. So that foot wasn’t broken after all. Ghenni remembered what having a broken arm felt like. If Yanag’s foot had been broken, she wouldn’t have been able to sound so mean so quickly.

Next time, Ghenni would kick even harder.

“You want it?” Zoltan said. Ghenni heard Yanag grunt affirmation.

Grunt like the pig that you are, she thought furiously. We’ll get you for this.

Another crunching sound signalled the death of yet another shell the three had found pretty enough to want to destroy. They laughed. There were many more crunches.

“Me, too,” Xulia cried. He sounded hurt, hurt at being left out. Zoltan seemed to recognize it. Xulia let Ghenni go. She raised her head and glared at the trio.

“Those shells were for Wakano,” she said in her best doomsayer voice. “I don’t think he’ll appreciate what you’re doing. I bet he’s gonna be mad at you.”

“He’s gonna be mad at you,” Zoltan said, pushing her back into the dirt. “You’re the one who promised him seashells, and didn’t deliver.”

The crunching continued, far longer than Ghenni would have thought possible. Or perhaps it only seemed so.

“That’s the last of them,” Yanag finally said. Ghenni flinched. They had smashed all her shells, they had her within reach, and they still had the stones.

Two dull thuds to her right told her that they didn’t have the stones any longer. Zoltan’s weight left her body.

“Listen, runt,” he said. Ghenni picked herself up, wiping some of the dirt out of her face with her arm. “I’d thought we made it clear,” Zoltan continued, “that we can do whatever we want whenever we want. So you’d better stay out of our way, or you’ll get hurt.”

“Why?” Ghenni said. “What did we ever do to you?”

Zoltan slapped her so hard she fell down again.

“You didn’t do anything,” he sneered. “We do it bacause we can. Is there a better reason to do anything?”

He spat at her. Yanag and Xulia followed her example. Laughing, they went away. Ghenni kept glaring until they were out of sight, they she wiped the splittle off with the rim of her sarong.

“I’ll get you for this,” she muttered. “I don’t know when, or how, but I’ll get you.”

If Wakano hadn’t twitched, she wouldn’t have fallen. She would have gotten away.

What was that thing that had tripped her anyway? It hadn’t felt like a stone.

She went down the path until she saw the twinkling.

“What is that?” Miki said from behind her. Ghenni almost jumped.

“Don’t do that,” she said, half angry, half relieved.

“They couldn’t have done that if we’d stayed together,” Ankhoro said, nodding at the shell shards.

“Where’d you come from anyway?” Ghenni said.

“We got to the shrine and waited,” Miki said. “When you didn’t come, we figured they’d got you and decided to see if there was anything we could do.”

Ghenni nodded and sat down on the ground.

“They wouldn’t have got me if I hadn’t tripped over this stupid thing.”

“What is it?” Ankhoro said, kneeling beside her.

“Looks pretty,” Miki commented.

“Let’s dig it up,” Ankhoro suggested. “Let’s see what it is. Perhaps Wakano’ll accept this instead of that.” He nodded toward the shells.

“Do you have anything to dig with?” Miki said. Ankhoro rose and went over to the shells. He picked up some of the larger pieces and brought them to the girls.

“Perhaps this will do,” he said. Ghenni smiled at him and took one of the shards. Perhaps boys were good for something after all. She scratched the ground experimentally.

“This isn’t as hard as I’d thought,” she said. “Perhaps the shudder has loosed the earth a bit.”

“Had to, if it pushed this thing up,” Ankhoro said.

Digging the artefact free took dozens of pieces of shells, many broken fingernails and several nicks and cuts to the childrens’s fingers. Now and then, one of them shook the thing, to see if it would move.

Finally, it came loose.

“What is it?” Miki said as Ghenni turned it around. The thing was of a kind of metal Ghenni had never seen before. It had a broze color. It was rather small, with a rotound body that had a hollow tube attached to it. A metal loop was obviously supposed to be a fingerhold. A round knob on top seemed to be a way to open it, but it was stuck.

“I’ve no idea,” Ghenni said. “I’ve never seen anything like this at all.”

“Let’s show it to our parents,” Miki suggested. “Perhaps they know what it is.”

“No,” Ankhoro protested vehemtently. “This is our find. If we show it to the grown-ups, they’ll take it away and we’ll never see it again. We don’t need to know what it is. We can always sacrifice it to Wakano.”

“Not like this,” Ghenni said. “Look at it. It’s all dirty. I don’t think Wakano’d appreciate a dirty thing.” She smiled. “I can almost see myself in there. If I rub the dirt off, I bet it’ll be beautiful.”

The tube’s end was clogged with dirt. Ghenni removed it. She took the hem of her sarong and rubbed at the dirt, using a little spittle to get a better shine.

The tube released smoke, more that the thing could possibly hold, with a forceful hiss. Ghenni dropped the lamp. The children leaped for the bushes.

The smoke solidified into something that looked like a man, only bigger. The man was bald and wore a funny outfit. His lower body was covered with blue cloth that flared around his legs. His torso was draped with a red west that had a gold pattern worked in. A funny little red hat was perched on his head at an impossible angle. A circular earring decorated his left ear.

The man stretched.

“Oh man,” he moaned. It was a sound of pleasure. “I’d started to think I’d never get out of that stupid lamp. Thank…” He looked around. “Hey, where are you? Okay, who’s the joker? Who rubbed my lamp?” The man closed his eyes and turned around, his right arm outstretched. His index finger pointed at the bushes. Ghenni felt something tug at her when the finger pointed at her. The man stopped, smiled (oh, those teeth!) and wiggled his finger. Ghenni rose into the air and flew straight at the man. His finger pointed down, making Ghenni land gently. Or so she thought.

“You rubbed the lamp,” he said.

“Please,” Ghenni said. She swallowed. It wouldn’t do to start crying in front of this stranger. “I didn’t know anyone lived in it. I just wanted to clean it.”

A stone flew through the air, straight at the man. It crumbled into dust before it reached him. The man held out his arm, and a struggling Ankhoro came sailing through the air.

“Don’t you dare hurt her,” Ankhoro screamed, his face red.

The stranger set him down.

“I’ve no intention to hurt her, young warrior,” he said. “Actually, I’m grateful. Tell me, how long have I been in that lamp?”

“Excuse me?”

“What’s today’s date?”

“The third day of the fifth month of the 25th year of the dolphin.”

The man blinked.

“What’s that in real time?”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind,” the man said, shaking his head. “It seems they sent me farther away that I’d thought possible. Let’s try something else. Where is this place?”

“You’re on our island,” Ankhoro said triumphantly. “It’s called Kanaoke.”

“You wouldn’t know which continent we’re on?”

“What’s a continent?” Ghenni asked.

“Forget I asked. Okay, back to business. Let’s get your wishes over with, shall we?”

“What wishes?” Ghenni said. “Who are you anyway?”

“What do you mean, what wishes? You freed me from my lamp, and…” He stared at the children, open-mouthed. “You’ve no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

Ghenni and Ankhoro shook their heads. Ghenni felt Miki’s hand on her shoulder. So the third member of their group had finally dared to come out.

“Just how far did that damn vizir send me? I mean, if you don’t even know what to do when you free…” Ghenni wasn’t sure she liked the gleam in the man’s eyes when he turned around to look at them. “You really don’t, do you. All right, gather round me.” The man sat down next to the lamp. “You can call me Habbassin. I’m, uhm, well, what you’d call a spirit. The spirit of the lamp, sort of. Once, I was a mighty wizard. Unfortunately, one of my rivals got the better of me and locked me into that lamp. It seems he wanted to get rid of me for sure, so he sent me here. Anyway, I was cursed to stay inside that lamp until somebody rubbed it. You did,” he nodded at Ghenni. “When I came out and there was no one around, I cast a spell to fetch the person who rubbed the lamp. What’s your name, kids?”

“I’m Ghenni. The boy’s Ankhoro, and the shy one’s Miki.”

“Jenny, Anchoro, Mickey. Gotcha. Well, whatever. I wanted to thank you. There’s a customary way to do it, but since you don’t know about it I won’t bother you with the details. Still, I think I owe you. If there’s anything I can do to repay you that favor, speak up. I can do almost anything.”

“Zoltan,” Ankhoro said. Ghenni nodded slowly.

“If he can make Zoltan stop hurting us, I’m for it.”

Ghenni looked back at the shells. If she hadn’t tripped, she never would have found the lamp. Perhaps she didn’t trip because Wakano had been mad at her. Perhaps it was quite the opposite.

“Can you make a couple of bullies stop bothering us?” she asked.

“Kid stuff,” Habbassin beamed. “Gimme the details.”

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