The boy was sitting beside a branch of the river that marked the end of his people's place. These lesser waters struggled through the clan's fields, their way broken here and there by the trunks of fallen trees, until their stream was lost in this green island.
He was Aruanã, son of Pojucan, and stood taller than most boys of his age. His mother, Obapira, had counted the first four or five seasons following his birth but then stopped, for the next age that mattered would come when he was ready for manhood. Now he had reached this stage. His limbs were well formed, his shoulders sturdy and straight. His jet-black hair was shaved back in a half-moon above the temples, from ear to ear, and his eyebrows were plucked. His lower lip was bored through in the custom of his people, and in it he wore a plug of white bone as large as his thumb.
Aruanã dangled his feet in the cool water. No one ever came here, because it was too shallow for bathing and the fish were few and miserable, but such a place suited his thoughts this afternoon.
Could he not remember, two Great Rains past, when he would lie awake in the longhouse, listening to the sacred music from the clearing, rhythms that held back the sounds of the jungle, as the villagers sang the praises of his father, Pojucan, the Warrior, Pojucan, the Hunter? But Pojucan had stopped going to the celebrations and would hunt alone, often without success. And when Pojucan had become an outcast, so had his son, who was teased and taunted by his companions.
When they played the games of animals, Aruanã had to be the small rodent, Kanuatsin, who lived at the edge of the forest, and was forced to dash about, squeaking shrilly, until the others pounced upon him. At the river, they would lie in wait and ambush him when he went to swim: "Run, Aruanã, run to your sisters! Hurry to the fields of the women, for you'll never be a warrior!"
These torments had begun only after his father started to walk alone, Aruanã's early childhood had been happy: days of riding to the fields in the soft fiber sling at his mother's side, and playing in the sands while she worked with her digging stick, until he was able to stalk small birds and insects with the little bow and arrow made by Pojucan. Twice within the first five Great Rains of his life, the people had abandoned the village for the forest; but, to Aruanã, the migrations had been a tremendous adventure. Nor had he felt fear when his people prepared for war: As far back as he could remember, not a single enemy had got beyond the heavy stakes that protected his home. And hadn't he himself survived this long without being touched by the beings that dwelt in the depths of the forest and were known to devour children?
No sooner had this thought entered his mind than he detected a movement a little way downstream at the edge of the water. He sat absolutely still, his eyes riveted on the place where the undergrowth had been disturbed, listening intently for a sound.
Was it Caipora, stunted forest spirit, of whom his people spoke only in whispers? No one he knew had actually seen the tiny one-legged naked woman who hopped around in the shadows, and this was their good fortune, for her gaze brought the greatest misfortune to whoever looked into those fiery red eyes.
To his relief, it was not Caipora but the young otter, Ariranha, who peeked out at him, made some tentative gestures toward the water, and then dashed back into his hiding place. Aruanã did nothing that might alarm the little animal. After a while, there was a slight rustling sound as the otter poked his broad muzzle through the leaves and then took to the water.
Aruanã pictured the otter splashing upstream to his family and knew that he, too, must leave this place. The sun would be on the fields beyond, but its light was fading from the roof of the forest and it would soon be as night where he stood. He would want to think of himself as bold as Ariranha, but even a warrior like his father could fear this dark.
Copyright Errol Uys. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this excerpt contact the author at http://www.erroluys.com.
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