art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat: Part 1
by Lavie Tidhar
This is the world of Qat.
The trees here have never been cut down to timber. Their roots are twisted into each other's underground, like fists, like hearts. This is Qat's world. This is the world of the vui.
Islands separated by seas populated by ghosts, swimming with shark familiars. Islands linked by the roads of the spirits, ol devel rod, islands haunted by all that had ever lived and died there.
This is the world of Qat. A world where stones talk and give birth, where trees can trap unwary travelers, where the uturgurgur make their lives in the thick dense impenetrable forests. This is the world of the volcano-spirit, Wurisris, the world of heroes and great deeds, of song and myth and dance. The dead congregate on Surevuvu, and the great shape-shifting beast swims in the volcanic Lake Letas, scaring away the timid prawns, casting a shadow over even the most gigantic eel.
This is Qat's world. This is the world of stones and trees, of half-shadows, gloomy forests, bright lakes, deadly waterfalls. This is the world of the blakenwaet water snake, the world of nakaimas, the world of true magic, earth magic, salt water magic, of bird magic and shark magic and the magic of kava. It is as real as the smell of smoke, as palpable as laplap. There are people there, in Qat's world, many of them, for they never died of the weapons and the diseases borne to the islands on the trade winds: here they still shoot fish with bunaro, fat fish lolling in the reefs as the arrows enter their sweet succulent flesh. Here the nangalat grows, that poisonous plant, and mushrooms glow faintly in the dark, here the tamates comes out at night, here the spirits dance the Rusrus DengŤ with the living on Surevuvu, here dread Qasavara hunts and eats children and men.
This is the world of Qat, the real world, the world that never changed, that is always there, behind the other one, one layer beneath another, waiting....
A world that can sometimes be breached, in that half heartbeat between life, and death.
When they found the white man lying on the ground in the bush they were at first afraid, thinking it was a ghost. There had been signs heralding the arrival, and they noted them nervously amongst themselves. Old Qasavara the man-eater had been prowling all along the island, roaring and searching for prey, and the volcano had belched fire and a row of canoes was seen in the distance, coming from the direction of Vanua Lava with a coconut shell in their wake.
There were changes coming and the white man seemed to them to be the herald of those changes and they were uneasy, and Manlepei said, "We should kill him."
Another of their number said, "He looks already dead."
They crept closer to the giant and their chief put his fingers cautiously to the man's wrist. "His heart beats," he said.
It must have been magic that brought the white giant there. They found him in a clearing in the forest lying all by himself. He looked peaceful lying there. They conferred at some length, talking in hushed excited voices. At last their chief made his decision: "We shall carry him to the village," he said. "We can always dispose of him later, or give him to Qasavara as a gift."
The little men gathered around the giant then and, working as a team, began to drag him, two holding each enormous hand, two pushing each gigantic foot, and four altogether around the giant's mid-section, pulling and pushing in turns.
It was a hot oppressive day and the sun glared down as if angry with them. It was not a good sign and far in the distance the volcano belched fire as if angry at the skies. The elements of the world were at odds with each other, that was plain for all to see. And a white man in the forest was something unnatural. He was not a vui, of which there were plenty, nor was he a human as they knew them, those people the color of the rich earth of the island from whose storage huts they sometimes stole and who they sometimes bedeviled as they walked through the forests, leading them astray, deeper and deeper into the woods. The humans were afraid of Qasavara but then so were the uturgurgur, and some of them felt sorry for the white human, who was bound to become the man-eater's meal if he werenít helped. Though they were still not sure he wasnít a vui.
They took him to the village, which lay on the slopes of that great mountain. The nambanga tree rose into the skies forever. It was a world upon itself, roots rising out of the earth in a twisting and turning cacophony of life, an entire forest of them, offering shelter and protection from the woes of the outside world. They dragged the white man through the roots and his head bumped against a stone twice and once against one of the hard roots of the nambanga and their chief said, "Be careful, you idiots!" They all grinned when he said it but afterwards they went more slowly and the white man's head didnít hit anything else. Some of them half-hoped he would die on the journey and thus solve the problem of what to do with him, but he didnít, and so the problem, and the man, remained.
When they reached the village they put the giant in the nasara and watched him carefully. Fires had already been lit and the smoke rose out of the nambanga roots and up into the air. It had been a busy morning foraging and they had narafika fruit and nangai nuts and coconuts, and one party had captured a net-full of river prawns, and those were good signs. Perhaps the white man brought prosperity with him? They wondered. The womenfolk came and studied the white man with curiosity and prodded him with sticks and with their fingers, but he never awoke, and so they waited.
The white man slept for three days and three nights before he woke.
Little faces stared down at him with bright button eyes. He blinked and their expressions changed, quickly and almost comically into fright, and they disappeared from his limited view.
His head hurt and there were aches in his knees and his arms but he felt surprisingly well. His last memory was...
There had been a crash...
A ball of fire...
Details were hazy. His head felt strange. There had been a...
He remembered islands, a ship that moved seemingly by itself. Metal birds that flew, impossibly...
He pushed himself up and stared at the uturgurgur.
"You!" Manlepei said, prodding the giant with a long stick. He jumped back when the giant sat up, and the others laughed, though nervously. "Are you a ghost?"
"I..." the giant brought a white hand to his head as if checking. He seemed eager to oblige. He said, "My name is Henry."
It was a very strange name and the uturgurgur tittered. "Henry..." Manlepei's woman said with a dreamy sort of voice and a couple of the other women sighed and Manlepei glared at them before turning back to the giant. "How did you come to be here?"
The giant looked confused and, after a moment, said, "I donít know."
"Manlepei, enough," the chief said. "He is our guest."
Manlepei subsided, with ill-grace. The white man said, "Could I have... could I have water?"
They brought Henry water and he drank. The village lay all around him, everything in miniature, huts and sheds for those strange people the size of children. They were stocky and the men were bearded, and they wore grass skirts. The village sat under a woven net of roots and an enormous tree which must have been a banyan rose up above their heads. It was cool and dark under the roots of the giant tree though he couldnít quite stand up without bumping his head on the canopy of roots. Again he felt his head but there were no bumps or bruises as such. He wondered where he was and how he came there. He felt...
There had been an urgency, at first, but gradually it was fading, in little steps one after the other until, at last, it was gone. He felt peaceful, he realized. The questions still hovered at the back of his mind but they were subsiding, and anyway, he ignored them. The uturgurgur had built fires and they offered him the nangai nuts and they all sat together, cracking them open, drinking the water from the coconuts. Gradually sunlight faded and above their heads the stars came out, a multitude of cold bright distant lights that covered the entire dome of night. A moon rose, a full silver ball that sent down bewitching rays of silver light to bathe the village, casting huts and little people in bass-reliefs of shadows.
When he slept that night he slept deeply and well, and when he woke up he no longer wondered where he had come from, or whether he had to go back.
This story was first published on Monday, July 23rd, 2012