A gnarled old tree supported the young man’s weight as he leant against it. Preoccupied, his pensive eyes wandered across the river’s vast expanse. A flock of toucans flying by interrupted his daydreaming, and the deep throaty calls of howler monkeys filled his ears with their cries.
Jabuti was a tall man, with what some said was an aloof manner; but he knew the truth only too well. He was a man of deeply ingrained habits, the sheen on the bark testimony to his regular visits. His habits and rituals brought him comfort, but also meant that each day was the same. The monotony of his daily life was inhibiting him, leaving him frustrated; but strangely he felt unable to share his troubles with anyone.
Standing proud and tall he breathed deeply, watching the river’s endless journey downstream, to a destination he couldn’t begin to envision. Bending down, he scooped up a handful of water and savoured the sweet taste as it refreshed his parched mouth. With the setting sun illuminating the forest with a fiery-red glow he returned on the short walk back to the village. Negotiating a well-worn path from the many footsteps over the years he took in his surroundings. Many plants grew alongside the path, their uses many and varied. He was still learning about their properties every day, but he already knew the type to cure a fever and which ones to dress a wound. With his musings and observations occupying his mind, he soon found himself back in the village. Several dogs came bounding up to greet him, rushing around his legs and sniffing him like faithful sentries. Kneeling down, he wrestled with them as they playfully gnawed his hands. He loved the dogs’ boundless love for anyone who gave them any affection. The sound of children’s laughter filled his ears as they squealed and yelped, playing in the bare earth with nothing more than a palm frond to amuse themselves.
I wish I could be so happy, he mused.
Walking past them he ruffled their hair as they smiled at him behind dirty faces. Continuing into the village, he nodded to his fellow tribesmen. He came from a tribe called the Piaroa Indians, who were a peace-loving community, living in harmony with the forest’s flora and fauna. They were short in height with rounded faces and permanent smiles, in complete contrast to Jabuti’s angular features and serious countenance. Adorned with jewellery crafted from seeds and animal parts, coloured with dye from forest vegetables, they were a colourful bunch.
Upon arriving at the hut he shared with the other single men of the village he stooped to allow his tall frame to fit through the entrance. Nodding hello to the others he walked to a corner where he slept on straw matting, like the others. That was where he spent hours whittling away at pieces of wood, recreating the animals that lived in the forest. He found the process quite therapeutic and his friends joked at the virtual menagerie he had built up over the years.
Personal space was at a premium which didn’t seem to bother the others, but Jabuti was different.
A loner, some said.
It wasn’t that Jabuti wanted to be alone as such. It’s that he found being around others continually, a drain on his energy. His surroundings were his salvation though. With the river’s endless vista and the forest’s myriad of paths, came the peace and solitude he craved. Luckily, his people were a warm and understanding race and did their best to accommodate his peculiarities.
As Jabuti was going about his task he glanced at his two childhood friends, Wanadi and Mapi.
Wanadi was a happy person with a big wide grin lighting up his face. He had a playful glint in his eyes, his features accentuated by a large nose, a square chin and an ever present half-smile on his lips. Quick with a joke he was good company. Jabuti was certain he could not recall him ever being otherwise. He was a friend who could be relied on without question and Jabuti felt safe with him by his side. Mapi had more of an intense personality and was born a natural worrier. With a portly frame and wild messy hair he was teased constantly, but he took it with good humour, though.
What else could any man want? Jabuti wondered. They seem content why can’t I?
He had good friends, a peaceful village to live in and food in his belly, but he could not shake off the gnawing feeling of loneliness and despair, which haunted his every waking moment. These worries shadowed him from the time he opened his eyes until the tender embrace of sleep soothed his troubled mind.
But why can’t I break the spell?
That’s how he felt; cursed. Cursed by the spirits of the forest. They had placed a heavy burden upon his shoulders, which he, and he alone had to bear. It simply made no sense to his analytical mind, but there it was, nonetheless. And that was at the core of his loneliness, something other-worldly had sabotaged any chance he might have had of finding happiness. The torment he suffered had become so unbearable lately that he had been thinking of confiding in the aged shaman.
The old man used his words sparingly, but when uttered, his audience listened with hushed breath. He had inquisitive, alert eyes set deep within his weather-beaten face and walked with a shuffle and the aid of a cane. As a child, Jabuti recalled the times when he used to sit with his friends peeking through the walls of the shaman’s hut as he sat preparing various tinctures and potions. They convinced themselves that if found a terrible spell would be cast upon them, such was his power and mystery.
With a rumbling stomach, Jabuti was pleased to smell the aroma of cooked meat wafting through the open doorway. He and Wanadi arose and looked over to where they saw Mapi sound asleep. With a glint in his eye, Wanadi leant forward and started tickling Mapi’s nose with a feather.
Mapi opened one lazy eye and simply shook his head. But as he was getting up, he smiled mischievously and tackled Wanadi to the ground, much to the annoyance of the others. Untangling themselves they continued pushing each other as they made their way towards dinner.
‘I think we should go fishing tomorrow,’ Wanadi said. ‘I’m getting bored eating monkey every night.’
‘Yes, it must be hard eating your own family,’ Mapi quipped.
Wanadi started imitating a monkey and chased after Mapi along the path, screeching and waving his arms. Jabuti laughed as he followed. Climbing the steps, they fell through the entrance giggling and were met by the surprised looks of the villagers.
‘Oh, good, three more monkeys for the pot. We will eat well tonight,’ said Maru, a girl in whom Jabuti was very keen on.
He untangled himself from his friends, feeling a little abashed. Wanadi and Mapi nudged each other and exchanged looks, knowing all too well how fond he was of her. Every time Jabuti saw her, he felt his breath catch in his throat as he looked at her. He had known her since they were children, but back then he dismissed her casually as a nuisance, preferring to play with his friends instead. Since then, though, she had blossomed into an attractive woman. He couldn’t tell when it had happened exactly, but she had gone from being a girl one day into a creature he found confusing and difficult to talk to. It seemed all so easy when they were children. All he had to do was pull her hair, push and tease her.
But now… What do I do? I can’t think of anything to say to her, he thought, grinning at her stupidly.
After their noisy arrival, they sat down for dinner, where he cast furtive glances her way. The communal hut was lit by a blazing fire with the tribe gathered around it. An all pervasive smell of smoke had permeated into the walls over the years and the heat from the open fire added to the stifling atmosphere. The nightly feast could be varied depending on the luck and skill of the hunters, supplemented with fresh produce from the communal gardens.
One of Jabuti’s favourite foods was the peacock bass, which made for delicious eating, but did not give up its succulent flesh easily. With no nets in which to catch the fish it took a patient and wily hunter. Once caught though, it could still catch out the unwary or uninitiated. Jabuti recalled the day when Wanadi caught and threw one into the bottom of their bongo, the name given to a dugout canoe. Disregarding it he concentrated on trapping another as the fish bit into his foot and he hopped around the canoe on one leg, almost capsizing it. His friends laughed hysterically, offering him no help at all. Relief only came after he smashed the determined creature on the head and the stunned animal let go. This story was recounted as they ate, and Wanadi being a good sport, re-enacted the tale and hopped about the hut as people laughed hysterically.
With their meal over, the three friends walked back together. Jabuti kept looking back though, trying to catch a glimpse of Maru.
‘So, my bashful friend, why don’t you talk to her?’ Wanadi said.
‘Hmm?’ Jabuti muttered, still distracted.
‘Maru. You can’t keep your eyes off her.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Jabuti replied, hoping he would change the subject.
‘Does that mean she’s free?’
Jabuti glared at Wanadi and stormed off.
‘What did I say?’
Mapi simply shook his head and followed Jabuti.