by London Lampy
"You've never done it?" I ask Tippit.
"No, I was too young when the slavers took me, and now I'm too old."
"Don't really see how some fucking ceremony makes you an adult. All you need is to get a bit of common sense and to learn to control your libido, that should do it...speaking of which."
Llando has suddenly appeared in our clearing, dropping down from one of the trees above us. I shoot Vio a dirty look, which she ignores. He makes his way over to where we are sitting on the ground outside Tippit's hut, drinking his palm wine.
I did eventually manage to get Sampson safely down from the village, and despite protesting that he felt fine, or in his words "fit as a flea", he fell asleep late in the afternoon, and as far as I know is still snoring away in his hut long after sundown.
Llando sits beside me, wrapping his tail around mine and out of the corner of my eye I can see Vio frowning at me, but now it's my turn to ignore her.
Llando looks at Tippit and says something, Tippit translates. "He wants to tell you he's pleased that you're going to become a man, he thinks it's a good thing."
"How does he know about that?" I ask. I only agreed to it a few hours ago.
The answer doesn't need translating. "Barney," Llando says. I guess he's told everyone by now.
I put my arm around Llando and stroke his back, his skin is smooth under my fingertips and I kind of wish the other two weren't here right now. Tippit fetches Llando some palm wine and as I can't think of any reasonable way to get him on his own short of dragging him off into the forest I resign myself to sitting here talking with Vio and Tippit for the time being.
Tippit is very curious about our lives in Parnell and asks us a lot of questions about the city and our jobs. "Do you think I could get a job there?" he quizzes us when Vio has finished telling him about her previous role in the police force.
"Depends," Vio replies. "What else can you do beside bad disguises?"
"I can cook and clean and serve, do you think someone might employ me as part of their household staff?"
"Yeah, maybe," she says, and I can see she's trying not to sound too committed. Without references it wouldn't be that easy, and his background might put people off too.
Poor Llando is kind of left out of the conversation, Tippit sometimes translates bits for him, but he doesn't seem to mind and he stays happily sitting beside me drinking the wine. After an hour or so the conversation lulls and Tippit decides to go to bed so we leave him to it, heading back to our sleeping hut with Llando in tow.
"Are you coming to bed?" Vio pointedly asks me.
"Um...soon," I look at Llando, who smiles back at me.
Vio rolls her eyes, shakes her head then disappears into our hut muttering something about boys. Once she's gone Llando takes my hand and we walk a little way into the forest, stopping at the base of a large tree.
"Want..." he says.
I pull him toward me until my back is against the tree and his body is pressed close against mine. He puts his hand on the back of my head, leans in and kisses me. The kiss quickly deepens, his tongue soon finding its way inside my mouth and I can feel that he's already hard, but then so am I. I wrap my arms around his body and put one hand under his tail which he lifts so I can play with his sweet spot, then his ass.
The leather thongs cross over his ass, but it's basically bare and I explore with my fingers, stroking him there, which he responds to by making a low moaning noise and rubbing his erection against my leg. I let my fingers wander between his cheeks to touch his entrance. He stops kissing me abruptly and looks at me with wide, surprised eyes.
"Do you want me to stop?" I ask, still stroking him with the tip of my index finger.
"Na...na stop," he shakes his head, then kisses me so hard I taste blood, while at the same time trying to undo my shorts.
I've got half of one finger in his ass and am I'm using my free hand to help him unbutton my shorts when I hear Vio's voice calling my name.
"I'm busy!" I shout back. "I'll come to bed soon." Not too soon I hope.
"Barney's here, he wants to talk to you," her voice floats through the forest.
"Barney!" Llando exclaims quietly, stopping what he's doing and looking around.
"I think he's back in the clearing with Vio," I try to reassure him.
"Barney, na," he says, taking my hand from his ass then simply disappearing up into the trees. I guess he really doesn't want Barney to find out about this.
"I'll be out soon," I shout irritably, then swear a lot to myself as I re-button my shorts.
Barney couldn't have picked a worse time to turn up. Actually he could, about five minutes later than he has. I wait long enough to calm down, I'm not going out there with a bulge in my shorts. Once I'm ready I walk back to the clearing to find Barney talking to Vio, he frowns at me as I approach.
"You really should use the latrine pits, that's what they're there for," he scolds. "I know it seems like it doesn't matter, but if everyone went wherever they felt like the place would be a stinking mess in no time."
I glare at Vio, who gives me a look and a shrug, as if to say "what was I meant to tell him you were out there doing?"
"Sorry," I mutter.
"Apology accepted son, just remember in future."
"I will," I wish Vio didn't look quite so smug.
"Lets put that aside. I've come here to bring you some good news, Sosa has read the bones..." I'm not going to ask what bones he means, "...and he feels that tomorrow would be an auspicious day for you to begin your journey into manhood." He looks at Vio, "I'm afraid I have things I need to discuss with him that can't be discussed in the presence of a woman, I hope you understand."
Her pale eyebrows come close to disappearing into her hair, but she turns and goes into the hut without a word.
"From now until the process is complete you will need to fast, that means no food or drink can pass your lips."
"I can't eat?"
"No. It's very important that you go into this as untainted as possible, and no...um..." I could swear he's blushing. "That's to say...no...er...self manipulation, do you know what I mean?" He looks up at the village, he is blushing.
"Yes," I say quickly to spare him. I hope earlier today with Llando doesn't count.
"Good," he sounds relieved. "Sleep well tonight, at daybreak pay a visit to the bathing pool then come to my hut once you're cleansed, from there I'll accompany you to the sacred place."
"Alright," I nod. I don't think I can back out now, but I wasn't expecting to have to do it so soon either.
"Good night Exit," he smiles at me. "I'll see you tomorrow."
As I watch him walk to his hut I realise that I'm feeling very nervous, I really have no idea what I've let myself in for with this.
"Why the fuck did you say you'd do it if you don't want to?" Vio grumbles sleepily at me from her mat as the first light of dawn enters our hut. "You could have said no."
"I do kind of want to though," I reply, pulling on my shorts. "But I'm also kind of scared."
"What are they going to do to you?"
"I don't know, the only thing I do know is that I don't have to drink a monkey's heart."
"Yuck," she sits up and rubs a hand across her sleep creased face. "I can't believe Sampson did that."
I peer out of the doorway, I guess this is daybreak. "I suppose I'd better go," I sigh. "I'll be back in a couple of days."
"Good luck," she says seriously. "And be careful."
"I will, I don't think Barney would let anything really bad happen to me."
"Yeah, he has his faults but he does care about you, maybe a bit too much though. So you'll be an adult next time I see you?"
"Does that mean you'll start behaving sensibly and stop jumping into bed with every man who smiles in your direction?"
I think about it. "Probably not."
This early in the morning the bathing pool is deserted, a fine mist clings to its surface shifting and swirling as I get in. The water feels cooler than it does during the day and I get goosebumps as I swim out to the centre, turning onto my back and looking up at the trees. Then something strange happens, it sort of feels like something in my head has given way, like a wall that was there has suddenly collapsed and have the briefest flash of memory. The first one I've ever had from the time before the orphanage.
It's not much more than a picture, kind of a photograph in my mind, but it's there all the same. I remember looking down through the trees, the green leaves shifting in the breeze, looking down at the ground below to where I had just dropped...something...something important, something I knew I'd be in trouble for dropping, what was it? Frustratingly I can't quite recall, it's like grabbing at smoke. The memory simply slips away every time I think I'm getting close, but I do remember that whatever it was it wasn't mine, it was something precious and I wasn't meant to be playing with it.
The shock of the memory makes me stop paddling and I briefly slip under the water before coming back up for air. Swimming to the side I pull myself out and sit on a submerged rock, was that real? Or has being here fooled my mind into thinking it can remember? I sit quietly for a while, trying to see if anything else comes back, but nothing does, so I get dressed and go to find Barney.
"Sosa is already there, purifying the area and making ready," Barney explains to me as we make our way along a narrow track through the forest..
"Is he a priest?" I ask. I can't quite work it out.
"In a way, but perhaps not in the way you mean. He's a conduit, the power of Gui, therefore the power of the forest, flows through him."
I'm not sure I really understand but I nod anyway. "What's he going to do to me?"
"The only thing he going to do to you is tattoo you," he laughs. "The rest is up to you. First you need to "die", that's to say he'll have prepared a liquid to purge your body then put you into a state where you can purge your mind, rid it of the child. That will take many hours, but time will pass differently for you, it may feel like days, or perhaps nothing more than a few minutes, this differs in everyone. Once Sosa feels that you have completed your journey he'll bring you back to us with the smoke from a powerful mixture of leaves, then he'll anoint your head with with oil to ease your birth into the adult world. Once you are reborn he'll start your life story on the skin of your upper arm."
"That's going to hurt, isn't it?"
"Yes, but by then you'll be a man."
As we walk I can feel my empty stomach protesting the lack of breakfast. I don't know how I'm going to go for two days without food, I'm already having fantasies about biscuits.
"We're getting close," Barney says, pointing up into the trees.
I look where he points, above us almost every tree has at least one platform built onto it, and most of them have two or three. Unlike the village I can see no huts or bridges though, but all the platforms have what looks like bundles of rags and sticks on them.
"Is that an abandoned village?" I ask. There's something creepy about this place.
"No, it's a village of the dead. This, for want of a better word, is a cemetery."
Oh. Those aren't bundles of rags and sticks, they're bodies.
"Why are they up in the trees, shouldn't they be in the ground, or burnt like the visk do?" The idea of all those dead bodies left out in the trees for the animals and insects to eat is not a nice one.
"Where in the ground?" Barney asks. "To make enough space for all of them you'd have to cut down many, many trees, and fires out here have to be very carefully managed and maintained. The amount of fuel and heat needed to reduce a body to ashes is immense, this is the forest way, this is where my body will go when I die."
"It doesn't seem right," I protest.
"Why? How is this any different from rotting in the ground, or being cremated? If you've spent your whole life in the trees why would you want to be underground in death?"
"The visk believe their spirits can't move on unless they're burnt," I say.
"I know but they worship fire, after a fashion, to them that makes sense. Out here, this makes sense."
A wide pathway suddenly opens up off the side of the track and Barney leads me onto it. It's edges are marked with a line of round, pale stones on either side. No, not stones, those are skulls.
"Sometimes they fall to the ground," Barney says, seeing me staring. "So we use them to mark the way to the sacred place."
At the end of the skull path is a circular clearing, and in the middle of that a fire is burning inside a ring of blackened stones. Balanced over the fire on a tripod is a cooking pot and Sosa is standing beside stirring its steaming contents. When he sees us coming he nods in our direction, he has painted his face with black rings around his eyes and red stripes across his cheeks, and on his head is a crown of brightly coloured bird feathers.
"Exit..." he begins, then goes on to say something in the echoback language.
"Exit..." Barney translates. "You've come here to die a boy and be reborn a man. Nothing that happens in this place may be spoken about with boys, or girls or women, this knowledge is only for men. Do you accept this, and are you ready to pass from childhood into adulthood?"
They both look at me expectantly. "Um...yes, sa," I reply.
Sosa dips a wooden bowl into the cooking pot, filling it with liquid, then hands it to me.
"You must drink it," Barney explains. "Come and stand over here." He leads me to the edge of the clearing, away from the fire. Sosa follows behind.
"Why over here?" I ask.
"It's going to make you vomit, and it's best you do that away from where we're going to be for the next couple of days"
I stare down into the bowl, the contents doesn't smell too bad, kind of like grass clippings, and it looks like strong black tea with a few bits of leaf floating about in it. I really don't want to drink it if it's going to make me puke, but I don't want to be a coward either. I take a small sip and instantly wish I hadn't, it's so bitter it seems to suck all the moisture out of my mouth.
"It's best to drink it down in one," Barney advises me, seeing my reaction.
Very reluctantly I swig the entire contents of the bowl. The second it hits my stomach I start to retch, and I throw up noisily under the nearest tree.
"That's it son," Barney says rubbing my back while taking the bowl off me and giving it to Sosa. "Empty your body."
I do it again, this time I end up coughing until my eyes and nose run too. Once I've recovered Barney passes me back the bowl and to my horror it's been refilled. "I have to drink more?" I ask, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand. I'm staring to feel very strange, kind of dizzy, and the clearing seems much brighter than it was before, it's shimmering in the sunlight.
"Just one more to make sure," Barney answers, his voice sounding oddly distant. I'm finding it hard to swallow now, the bitter liquid just wants to come straight back up. Somehow I manage to finish it, then I vomit again.
"Urg," I spit, sincerely wishing I had never started this.
Barney takes my arm and pulls me back to the centre of the clearing, helping me to sit down. I find myself staring at the fire, it's filled with colours I've never seen in a fire before, the flames burn not just red and orange but blue, green, pink, silver and somehow even black.
"Look at that!" I point to it, reaching out to touch a fizzing turquoise spark.
"No." Barney stops me, grabbing my wrist.
"I know," his voice echoes in my head. "But it's still a fire." I'm aware of a strong arm wrapped around my middle and I try to push against it, to wriggle free.
"Calm down son," I hear someone say, then the arm becomes soft. It's a bed or a pillow and I lie back into the softness that now surrounds me. The colours of the fire fill the clearing and lick at the sky.
"Fireworks," I mumble as stars burst and tumble across my vision.
I hear chanting, something low and rhythmic, something that seem to consume my whole body. I close my eyes, the words pulse in the darkness and I both grow and shrink at the same time until there's nothing but me and the chant, the chant spreading and deepening, thinning and disappearing whispering in my ears and then...and then...and then... I'm in a room.
I'm in a room, it's a familiar room I've never been in before. There are two chairs and a table, a window and a wooden door, a bare wooden floor. I go and look out of the window and see the sea, blue rippling waves spreading out to the horizon. I feel motion, I'm on a ship, the window is a porthole. I hear a chair scrape on the floor and turn to see a someone sitting at the table.
"Hello drumeri," Tallis says.
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