I Am Going to Tell You a Story.
“I am going to tell you a story.”
The Rami, the village storyteller, leaned closer, that familiar glint in her eye.
“A very important story, one that you must remember. One that the world has forgotten.”
The children leaned closer, eyes wide. Their laughing and whispering and fidgeting stilled as they gazed at their Rami, eager to learn another of the stories that were passed down from one generation to the next. The beads hanging from the wooden planks of the ceiling waved in the breeze coming from the open doors, clinking together in the silence. Even they seemed to try to get closer to the Rami, to hear the words she had to say.
“This story is about a boy named Kaelem, much older than you but not so different. He had a mother and father and a little sister that he loved very much. He lived long ago, when everything was right and everyone was good. His people were at peace. They loved nature and each other. But they made a mistake. One that you must avoid.”
Kaelem ran the jungle terrain as if he were a part of the ground himself. In a way, he was. He leapt over rocks and boulders, dodged around trees, all while keeping his pace steady, his breathing even, and his feet quiet. His senses were engaged, seeing every shade of green, the spots of pink, purple and blue flowers, hearing the rustle of the wind and the chirps of the birds, and smelling the earth around him. He was alive in this place. After all, God had made man the heartbeat of the jungle.
A stream appeared beneath his feet. He’d heard it before he saw it, the water rushing over smooth stones and creating mini rapids that sounded like music in his ears. Without so much as a glance, he held a hand out towards the vine that was always there, just inches to his right, and it moved to meet his hand, delivering him gracefully over the water below.
His speed picked up even faster once over the stream. The soft grass beneath his feet urged him on ever so subtly, giving his feet an extra burst of speed. Vines swung down from their perch among the trees when he called out to them, allowing him to glide over patches of rocky ground with ease. He nodded to each of them in turn. They knew that he needed to get back to the village as quickly as possible. He was late for the evening meal and rituals. He whispered a message for the wind to carry on to his parents that he was coming, and it whisked away, much obliged.
It was a cry carried back on the wind that made Kaelem stop dead in his tracks and ripped the color from his face. It was different from the cry of joy or exhilaration that he often heard around the jungle. He had never heard a scream of fear before, but somehow he knew. That scream was the cry of a young girl absolutely terrified.
And then there was a smack and a thud, and the scream stopped abruptly, like a dead branch being cut off.
The breeze went stagnant and the leaves around him seemed to dull and sag from their branches. Even the birds went quiet. The silence was far more unsettling than the scream. He had never heard anything like it before. It was not of this world.
The silence reeked of death.
It took all of Kaelem’s strength to set one foot in front of the other in the direction of the scream. The frantic beat of his heart echoed in his ears, and dread creeped up his back like a predator waiting to pounce.
As he rounded the large trunk of a wise tree, its branches seemed to try to hide the scene from his innocent eyes. He brushed past them. He had already seen.
Blood. On the branch, on her head, on the ground around her.
Death. In a perfect circle around her body, the previously green grass had wilted and lost its color. The tree beside her was dead, its leaves brown and brittle and floating toward the ground like ashes.
And the girl… his sister.
Maela’s chest was still, no breath entering or leaving her lips, parted in a silent scream. Kaelem could hear it echoing around his head, could see the terror in her still-wide open eyes. She was laying in an unnatural position, limbs strewn about at awkward angles. Her damaged head bled profusely. Kaelem could not take his eyes away from the scene.
On trembling legs, he staggered toward her. How could this be happening? No one died but from old age. Death was peace. It was his people’s way of going home, to lisaya. Heaven.
Their people were one with nature, their own spirits intertwined with that of the trees, wind and water. The animals, too. All of Creation, working together for good. All was as it should be - balanced; at peace.
Kaelem closed Maela’s eyes, trying to steady his shaking hand, but it was of no use. He looked up at the tree towering over her, the one she must have fallen out of, the one with blood smeared on one of its large branches. No one fell out of trees, much less died from it. Stumble and the branches would steady you. Fall and the leaves would catch you. What had young Maela done to deserve this? Why had nature failed her?
Could someone who died such a death make it to lisaya?
Kaelem crumpled next to Maela’s soulless body as his world unravelled. The world he’d thought to be safe had been fatal, the jungle he’d put his trust in deadly. His sister was gone, dead, growing colder under his touch. Just a girl, hardly fifteen, with mischievous brown eyes, unrelenting curiosity, and a habit of making every task an adventure.
And he would never see her again.
A sound escaped his mouth that he did not know any human could make. The wind did not carry it on to his people; instead, it shied away from the wretched noise. He did not know a voice could carry such emotion, nor that gentle gears could turn into racking sobs, shaking his whole body. All he could think was, she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone. This was not supposed to happen. But it had. And who’s fault is that?
Something clicked in Kaelem’s heart and mind, his very soul shifting irreversibly. Slowly, he raised his eyes to the tree, to that branch splattered with red. His blood had turned to ice with the tears, but now it flowed as fire. The thing his people had trusted most had killed one of their own. That tree was a murderer. Looking around the jungle, Kaelem saw Creation in a new light. It was dark, and cold and lifeless. No good soul could take life from a young girl.
Anger welled up inside him, a fire so hot it devoured him. The grass turned from a dead brown to a charred black. Tendrils of smoke were in the air.in a fit of rage, Kaelem slammed his fist into the ground. The world started to tremble.
The earth cracked around his fist, the miniscule trenches spreading around Maela and himself. The ground shook, harder and harder, fueled by his rage. Branches fell, birds flapped away, and he could hear his people running toward him, then halting at a distance. The ground shook harder and harder until the tree beside him began to uproot. Hands grabbed him, pulling out of the massive trunk’s way. He saw another pair grab Maela. The world shook and shook, the tree began to fall, the rage rushed through his head, excruciating and empowering at the same time, and he watched with delight as the tree hit the ground.
When the trunk and branches and leaves struck the ground, something shifted in the jungle. In his people. When he looked behind him, he saw faces full of confusion and sorrow, and even some filled with anger like his own. His mother and father let out the same guttural cry he had.
The village’s heart broke that day. And so did the heart of the jungle.
The Rami leaned closer to the children, her gentle hands lifting their chins up, her kind gaze meeting their scared eyes.
“That is when people started cutting down trees, killing animals, and letting their hearts turn to stone. Nature hurt them, so they hurt nature. Now it is the way that most tribes live. But not us. One of the villagers there that day heard the wind whisper a different story, the story of the girl.”
Maela had always been exceedingly curious. She had always wondered at the way of the world and dreamed of what more it could be. She was a joy to her family and her tribe, but her curiosity was her downfall.
One day, while she was making her way through the jungle at a jog, she let her mind wander. A thought crept in that she couldn’t shake away. Why did they live the way they did? They used fallen branches for fires instead of chopping off larger ones. They left the animals alone instead of using them to help with their labor. They let the vines hang to use as convenient transportation instead of cutting them to help build shelter and tools. Why?
It was in the midst of these progressive, nearly traitorous thoughts that she saw a rocky patch ahead and reached her hand out for a vine to take her over. But the vine didn’t come. Surprised, she stumbled over the rocks and looked behind her, to where he vine hung freely. Frustration flared in her chest. Why hadn’t it helped her?
Her young, angry mind did not figure out that it was because she had been thinking about cutting the vines and using the jungle for selfishness that the wine had hung still.
After that, Maela was wary of nature. She often chose not to use the vines and instead climbed over boulders and leapt over water. She still occasionally sent messages over the wind called a vine or branch to help her over a particularly wide part of the stream, but she found they did not always answer.
She told no one about her struggles with the jungle. Her pride would not allow her to.
Weeks later, on that fateful day, she was climbing a tree for fun. She liked to pull herself onto the highest branches and look at the world from above. Maela was heaving herself onto a large branch when she found that the next one was too far away to reach. This was something that had happened a hundred times, and like always, she stretched her hand out and asked with her mind for it to come to her. The branch started to move, but then something terrible happened. Her mind wandered, and she found herself remembering the day she stumbled on the rocks. She remembered that nature was not always her friend. And as she reached for the branch and grabbed onto it, it stopped moving. Her mind on that unwilling vine, it swung back to its natural position. Her grip slipped. She felt herself falling and screamed in terror, but she did not trust the tree to catch her. So when she hit a branch, pain exploded in her head and the world went black.
The children’s eyes had only grown wider, and one little girl had tears in hers, on the verge of wailing and riling up the others. The Rami cupped the girl’s cheek in her hand and met each child’s eyes in turn.
"The reason her people were so connected with nature is because they trusted it, and nature trusted them in return. Break that trust, and there was no more connection. Maela did not trust the vine, so she stumbled on the rocks. Because of that, she did not trust the tree, so it could not catch her. Their trust was broken.
“This story is meant to be a lesson to all of us. The connection people once had with nature is gone, but if we continue to trust it, we will make it to lisaya. Kaelem did not understand what happened to his sister, so he was angry, and the other tribes followed in his footsteps. But we are different. We remember all that this jungle has provided, and we know the truth about Maela’s fall. And one day, that connection will return. We will be reunited with nature once again. And death will cease to exist.”
The Rami gazed at the beautiful children and smiled at them, and they gave tentative smiles in return.
“All we have to do is wait.”