THE TRIBE – a short story by Nitin Sharma

Not every child gets mother’s love.

In a lush green jungle dappled with sun, Lomo stood outside their tiny, round hut meticulously adorned with animal bones and dried entrails, his brutally scraped torso, bleeding wherever his mother had been able to reach her sharp nails, depicting her patent hatred for him. Lomo knew pain –it wasn’t her first violent paroxysm, after all– but knowing it couldn’t stop him from being furious with himself, for how could he let her ambush him once again? In jungle, instincts ascertained survival, the more so when your own mother was your most persistent foe.

‘Kwo num,’ never again, he muttered resolutely and tried to calm the inflammation by rubbing some moist soil from tree roots on abrasions, which always helped. At the same time he searched his head for the faintest clue about what he, the youngest of her three children, had ever done to incur her wrath, especially when his elder sisters occasionally retorted to their belligerent mother and yet managed to remain unscathed; his head had no clue whatsoever. Once he had dared ask her directly why she loathed him, and the next thing he had seen was a burning twig, snatched from her earthen stove, just missing its target- his body. Scared, Lomo had stopped talking to her entirely lest it should be his innards embellishing the hut next.

‘GO! AWAY!’ she screamed, the only words she seemed to have for her son.

A loud whack. So his father, having failed at restraining his wife again, had to use his last resort. Now he would force a crushed clove of a native black herb down her throat and she would sleep like a child until midnight or, if they were lucky enough, until the dawn. As he had predicted, she stopped growling and screaming after a while. Lomo could now enter the hut safely but didn’t want to. Someone put a hand on his head and ruffled his soft curls; this could be no one but his father. The man looked unperturbed and blithe as usual.

‘Father, is she all right now?’

The man nodded. He grabbed the kid’s shoulder and gently pushed him ahead, and Lomo knew instantly that they were going to have another little father-son chat until the seashore where Lomo would meet his friend and his father his own.

‘Why does she hate me so much?’ asked Lomo, ruefully examining the scratches on his belly.

‘Your mother is unwell.’ A succinct and somewhat evasive answer. Last time he had gotten away with this answer but this time Lomo wouldn’t let him.

‘Then why doesn’t she attack Libi and Lilo?’

‘Because you are special. Your sisters aren’t.’

There wasn’t the scantiest hint of adulation in those words.

‘Do people hurt their special children?’

His father took a moment to reply. ‘She wasn’t always like this’, he said somberly. ‘When you were younger, she loved you so much she could have died for you.’

‘Then why has she changed now?’

‘Now she has grown overprotective of you.’

Lomo couldn’t believe him. ‘Is this what you call overprotective?’ He extended his arm that had some faded bruises. ‘She is crazy but you’d never admit that.’ He picked up a stone and pelted it at a squirrel watching them from a tree. The poor animal scuttled off.

Suddenly his father chuckled. ‘She is not crazy, I can tell you that.’

‘Then why does she attack me?’

His father sighed. ‘Bad spirits,’ he said. ‘When they overpower people, they lose control. Especially the mothers,’ he added as an afterthought.

‘Why not the fathers?’ Lomo asked curiously, forgetting his troubles for a moment.

‘Because men are stronger,’ his father reasoned. They could see the seashore now. His father caught his arm and turned him around to face him. ‘One day you’ll be a man, Son. You must be brave. Brave enough to accept your fate without a flinch.’

Lomo didn’t really get him but found the solemnity in those words somewhat mysterious and a bit scary. Of course, he didn’t tell his father that.

Image by Frank Ravizza from Pixabay

The island, circumscribed by endless sea, was inaccessible to most outsiders. Moreover, the wary sentries of the tribe, lurking surreptitiously amidst dense vegetation or perched near treetops, kept a watch day and night to keep the shupos, ‘the camouflaged strangers’, away. These strangers –the uncultured outsiders who rode on the backs of big, beheaded swans, waved frantically and laughed noisily upon seeing a tribesman, carried flash-emitting boxes and, above all, covered their bodies too much, perhaps to fool the tribe sentries– were considered highly dangerous and treated very hostilely by the tribe. The patriarch had instructed the tribesmen categorically to never trust people who covered the upper-halves of their bodies with anything other than the necklaces made from seashells, feathers or fish-eyes. Every time the shupos attempted an intrusion by coming close, they were repelled by deftly administered pointed spears. In their presence, Lomo and other tribe kids could roam about freely and do what they liked.

Quite sure about where he would find Pula, his best friend and the tribe patriarch’s grandson, Lomo took the narrow track that led to their usual clump closer to the shore.

*

Something was amiss today. What could have prevented Pula from aiming a dried baobab at his best buddy, something he invariably did? Instead, Lomo found him gaping at the sea, his eyes scanning every visible part of it. When Lomo tried to greet him, he quieted him by putting a hand on his mouth. No, not a fitting welcome, especially when his friend could have excitedly enquired about his new abrasions.

‘Sentries are restless today,’ Pula whispered, still observing the sea.

‘Why?’

Lomo narrowed his eyes to slits and looked where Pula was looking but failed to see anything unusual, and yet he knew the matter must be grave because nothing but a danger could upset the ever-battle-ready sentries.

Shupos on beheaded swans,’ Pula told sensationally, affirming Lomo’s apprehensions. ‘Somewhere very close by. And Koj is nowhere to be found!’ Koj was another tribe kid they sometimes played with. ‘His mother has been unconscious since last night.’

So it was grave. Had the strangers taken Koj away?

‘They also saw a hollow crane up there,’ Pula added, pointing at the sky.

That was even worse. The gigantic hollow cranes, the roaring beasts, swallowed the strangers alive and the victims didn’t even know they were swallowed! That’s why they continued to wave frantically, holler inscrutable words at the tribesmen on the land from the bellies of the beasts, unaware of the impending death when the cranes would take them to a far island, regurgitate, and then kill one by one and eat properly. The patriarch had educated the tribe sufficiently. Probably the strangers had a fool for a patriarch who told them nothing. So much ignorance in the world beyond! Lomo and Pula had decided they’d never leave the island. In fact, no wise tribesman ever did, and all the tribesmen were wise. Women, on the other hand, had no say in this matter; in most matters, actually.

Lomo and Pula could spot some of the sentries amidst trees, still as rocks and camouflaged ingeniously; when fire ants bit their almost completely bare bodies, they didn’t even bother shake them off. Every movement, whether of an animal or a tribe member, made them crane their necks and stare around. But it all stopped by the noon. When they were sure that the strangers, having failed another attempt to intrude, had gone away, they came out and rested their spears against the tree trunks. It meant that Lomo and Pula were now free to sneak about in the huts, spying on young couples hugging and rolling over each other, or they could hunt birds, fish and sea-turtles for food; owing to the commands of their fathers, today they chose the latter. Using bare hands and some ferns and grass woven together, they had amassed before the dusk enough meat to last more than a couple of feasts, which was a good hunt.

‘PULA!’ someone called out in the jungle. They couldn’t mistake the guttural voice that belonged to Pula’s grandfather, the patriarch.

‘Coming, Grandfather,’ Pula shot back. After putting his share of meat in his animal-skin pouch he touched Lomo on the shoulder with his fist before departing. Himself beginning to leave, Lomo stopped abruptly when his eyes caught glimpse of something that glinted in the sea. It made him drop his pouch and go closer to water to inspect; it was a golden fish, big enough to provide sufficient meat for another family feast and scales for a painting of the sun, just lying there waiting to get caught! Unable to resist his temptation, Lomo jumped in.

The fish was cleverer than he had imagined, it led him into deeper water. Lomo wasn’t a novice when it came to holding his breath underwater to catch a prey, and he didn’t emerge until he had the creature by its tailfin. ‘HAAA!’ he exclaimed as he raised the fish above the sea. The next moment he was frightened to death. A headless swan carrying two strangers –a woman in colourful clothes sewn with flowers, and a mustached man who was half-naked but not like the tribesmen– stood facing him. The woman held a familiar little black box which generated a flash that blinded Lomo for a moment and he was forced to cover his eyes; he had been attacked! Was he going to meet the same fate Koj had probably met? His heart leaping to his throat, Lomo threw the struggling fish aside and swam for dear life. Behind him the stranger man yelled something like ‘HIYAKEED!’ but Lomo had no interest or courage to listen to him and didn’t stop until he had reached the protection of the jungle trees where he couldn’t be spotted. He stood there for a moment, clutching his chest and recovering his breath. Now he understood why his father and other tribesmen constantly warned young men against going far into the sea unless accompanied by an elder. He raised his hands to the setting sun to express his reverence, for he was still alive!

But how?

If the shupos were half as dangerous as the patriarch often pictured them, if they actually skinned their prey alive, why was he still breathing? Lomo closed his eyes and saw the bared-teethed stranger woman in his mind once again. Yes, she had attacked him with a strange weapon, but he was still unhurt and healthy! Was she, then, more dangerous than his own mother who was after his blood all the time? Lomo was perplexed.

When he entered the hut, he didn’t tell anyone anything lest he should invite his otherwise cool-headed father’s beating.

*

Since that dreadful encounter with the strangers, Lomo had been assaulted thrice by his mother who seemed to be growing increasingly intolerant of his presence in the hut. ‘GO! AWAY!’ If he could, he would, but where could he go, to the sea? After every attack she received worse beating and heavier doses of the black herb from her husband, but that only kept her contained temporarily.

Nonetheless, amidst all the chaos in his world, one dark night carried for Lomo a surprise he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams. Somewhere around midnight, as he got up to get some water from their pit near the stove, he heard muffled sobs and hiccups. He peered around in the dark, a stick smoldering in the stove being the only source of light in the hut. His sisters were fast asleep, almost heaped upon one another in their corner, while his mother was staring at him, two incessant streams of tears flowing from her eyes. No traces of hatred or violence in those big eyes; if anything, Lomo could see gloom and agony. He kept watching her for a moment, then drank a palmful of water, half-expecting another cunning attack from behind, but she merely kept crying. He lay down furthest from her and closer to his father where he felt safe, yet he kept his eyes on her. After a while she wiped her face and went back to sleep, only then Lomo could resume his own.

The change in his mother had been fleeting, the rising sun seemed to have restored her to her usual frenzy. Lomo woke up haphazardly when two hands gripped him by his upper arms and hurled him out of the hut with superhuman strength. If his father hadn’t intervened right then, she could have killed or injured him. ‘Bad spirits again,’ he muttered angrily and strolled away for another unplanned walk, this time alone.

At some distance some tribespeople were adorning tree trunks with molt, fangs and feathers as an old woman sang mournfully nearby. Kids frolicked about serenely and the whole scene, despite the morbid song of the woman, looked merry. What was the occasion?

Pula, grinning, appeared from nowhere and thumped him on the back. ‘Moon-eating night,’ he solved the puzzle and cheered Lomo up. Every moonless night brought along a lavish fest hosted by none other than the patriarch himself, right outside his enormous hut at the centre of the jungle. Men, young or old, were all invited to relish while women, forbidden to attend, stayed home with their daughters and babies, and the men who had ever been to it agreed that it was right thing to do because some of the rituals were not for the eyes of children too young. Pula and Lomo, now past that age, spent the day guessing what fun awaited them at the fest, and right after the twilight they joined the queues of fervid tribesmen marching to the hut. Most of the sentries had come, too.

Image by Achim Scholty from Pixabay

Every step in the direction of the venue made them feel the verve, but any outsider would have found the same place nothing less than gut-wrenching. Stuffed crows and bats lined the walls of the patriarch’s enormous hut, and a large vulture was kept bound to a bough by its claws so firmly that even though the poor bird opened its wings a fair number of times, it could not fly away; it was tonight’s sacrifice to the spirits of the dark in lieu of the moon. Meat smoked in clay stoves around the hut, and there were huge earthen jars of liquor from which each visitor took a bowl-full before taking his place around the adobe stage in the middle, where the patriarch himself sat on a rectangular stone slab. A large cauldron full of red-hot coal in front of him made him look odder than usual. Every new comer added to the gentle chorus of ‘hu-hu’.

When nobody else could be seen approaching, the patriarch stood up and boomed, ‘KWOCHA-LABO!’; the command for the vulture to be brought for the ritual. He held a spearhead in one hand and took the bird’s long neck in the other. Having sensed that something was about to happen to it, the bird shrieked and redoubled its efforts to escape but to no avail. In a single movement, the patriarch pierced its neck with a neat blow and dropped the spearhead. Using both his hands, he then severed the limp head from the body and chucked it on the ground where it lay spilling blood and horrifying the youngest of the kids. The body of the bird still kept shaking in those strong hands, and the patriarch raised it to the dark sky, offering it to the spirits of the dark, its blood dripping all over his body. Then he disposed it into the cauldron where it lay twitching, scorching slowly. The gentle chorus of ‘hu-hu’ had now changed to wild and booming ‘HU-HU-HU’. The servants of the patriarch carried an old, familiar vessel to each visitor by turns. It was mandatory to put your hand inside, take out a handful of the sour-tasting aqueous fluid that invariably left red marks on hands, and swallow it. Lomo and other boys abhorred it, but since the elders seemed to relish it, they pretended that they, too, were fond of it. It was same with a peculiar-tasting meat that always smelled a bit pungent but was required to be tasted by every tribesman. Soon the entire male tribe was to be overcome by inebriation.

Before their legs could no longer support them, the patriarch had one last and most unexpected ritual to perform tonight, Lomo being at its center. As every tribesman watched curiously, the old man descended the stage with both his arms spread dramatically, came over to Lomo and ushered him onto the stage. Once there, he removed his crown- a broad wooden ring with shreds of a reticular python coiled around it, displayed it around and then touched it on Lomo’s head once before placing it back on his own. Lomo hadn’t the slightest idea what the gesture meant but as soon as it was done, the tribe erupted into a great roar and Lomo’s own father looked so euphoric as if his son had been exalted to the rank of God. He burst into tears right then and there, not even trying to hide them from other men, as if they were adding to his masculine pride tonight. As the other men, now swaying and somehow balancing each other, left one by one, patting Lomo’s father on his back in turns, Lomo rushed over to ask him what had just happened.

‘You now share the crown with kotuko,’ he told his son proudly. ‘Even your friends and I must bow to you whenever we meet.’

‘You don’t need to,’ said Lomo, taken aback.

‘It would be a great honor,’ his father replied.

Together they started for their hut and once there, Lomo’s father ordered everyone to drink from their private stock as well. Soon the family was lying unconscious on the floor.

Except one person: Lomo’s mother hadn’t touched the drink to her lips.

*

Lomo was faintly aware that he, now tied and gagged, was being pulled by his long hair and dragged ruthlessly over the harsh, uneven land of jungle, stones emerging underneath and thorns in the bushes tearing mercilessly into his flesh. He used all his might and the still remaining consciousness to struggle himself free, but his mother and the vines binding his limbs were too strong. She moved amazingly fast, and halfway from the seashore she picked him up over her shoulder with astonishing ease. At the same time she was looking around for any signs of activity, but perhaps the sentries were too drunk to guard the island and she faced no hurdle whatsoever. Once at the shore, she took Lomo inside a crevice somewhere amidst massive rocks. Then she peeped around once more, and once assured that they were still alone, she ungagged him.

Lomo knew that his last moment had arrived, that she would crush his skull with a stone any moment now and end the mysterious grudge she harbored against him, but he was still too shocked and drunk to cry for help. When she splashed his face with a handful of cold seawater repeatedly, his consciousness returned gradually. He, then, threw up right on her legs but she didn’t care. She caught him by hair, gently this time, and tilted his still lolling head to face her.

‘Where is Koj?’ she asked composedly, like a teacher testing a student’s knowledge.

‘Huh?’

‘Where is Koj?’ she repeated, without raising her voice.

‘How am I to know, Mother?’ he replied, scared and puzzled. Perhaps that last word could do some wonder?

‘He is inside you,’ she said. ‘Inside your stomach.’

‘What?’ She is crazy.

‘You ate his flesh and tasted his blood tonight,’ she explained.

The words hit him like a rock. That pungent smelling meat, and that sour fluid… Did it belong to a tribe kid? ‘This can’t be,’ he said, half to himself, then threw up some more.

She, however, wasn’t interested in an argument. ‘Next it’ll be you they’re going to kill and serve,’ she prophesied. ‘If you let them,’ she added.

‘How… how can you tell?’ Lomo, unable to think, asked timidly.

‘You are a tilo child,’ she said. Noticing that he was still clueless, she held up three fingers of her right hand and counted them for Lomo, ‘Ug, yulu, tilo… ug, yulu, tilo… ug, yulu, tilo. No tilo child is supposed to survive because they belong to the spirits of the dark. Koj was another tilo.’

As he considered the words carefully, the truth dawned on him slowly: no third child in any family had ever lived to reach adulthood! It was always the third child that ‘met an unlucky accident in the jungle’ or ‘had drowned in the sea’ or ‘was taken away by the strangers’, and no man ever looked worried about it. His mother might or mightn’t be crazy but what she had just claimed wasn’t unfounded. As he realized this, he jerked his head to her again, his eyes wide in shock and horror.

‘Go! Away!’ she repeated her usual words, this time slowly but exasperatedly, and he could see tears brimming to her eyes.

‘But… but the patriarch made me his second tonight,’ said Lomo, hoping against hope.

‘Koj, too, was given that honor, remember?’ she asked, wiping tears away with her palm. ‘And Lug, and Ina, and Tobo…’

With a sharp-edged stone lying nearby, she started cutting the vines that bound him. The next moment, he was free. ‘Go. Away.’

‘But where?’ He knew that the island was too small to get lost on.

‘To the shupos, to the swans.’

Lomo was instinctually reminded of the danger branded on his mind from his childhood. What sane mother would ever suggest such a thing? Did she really want to save his life or just wanted him dead by the hands of the strangers? Was it all her cunning plot? Could she be sicker than he thought? Either she was lying or the patriarch was.

‘What if they kill me?’ he asked feebly.

‘LOMO!’

A loud voice that he knew belonged to his father boomed at a distance, and he felt a relief despite everything. He knew he could always trust his father.

‘We don’t know,’ said his mother, her breath faster now, for she, too, had heard the voice, ‘but if you stay, you will not see the morning after the next moon-eating night. And your father won’t give me another chance to save you.’

Now there were multiple voices out there. Tribesmen were shouting things to each other.

‘Hurry, Son!’ she implored him.

For the first time in living memory Lomo had heard that word, the sweetest of all words, from her, and for the first time he felt that he, too, had a mother. Crazy or not, she had finally touched his heart.

‘But they’ll kill you, then,’ he said apprehensively.

‘Killing a crazy woman won’t please the spirits of the dark,’ she reasoned. ‘Now you either run to the sea and try your luck, or run to the guards and live the rest of your days. But hurry!’

‘You’re not crazy,’ he said, and then touched her cheek.

She pressed his hand with hers. ‘Go!’

Still unsure what he should do, Lomo scrambled out and looked around. One of the sentries saw him and pointed a finger, drawing everyone’s attention on him. They bowed and then started in his direction. His father, who had accompanied the sentries to the shore, stood right there but did nothing to stop them. His big eyes, bloodshot from drinking, had no worries, no care in them. Lomo’s mother stood right behind her son, her breast heaving.

‘Stop!’ Lomo ordered the sentries but they just bowed again and kept coming. If he was second to the patriarch, how could they ignore his command? As Lomo started to move backwards, they quickened their pace. Seeing in their eyes the eagerness to catch him, Lomo could tell that his mother hadn’t been lying. His father remained rooted to his spot and when Lomo looked at him questioningly, he yelled, ‘Accept your fate, my brave son!’

As if he had been waiting to hear those cold words, Lomo turned back and sprinted towards the sea. A spear was thrown at Lomo, it fell beside him. Judging by the might put into the throw he could tell it wasn’t intended to kill but merely injure him to slacken his pace. He ran even faster. The three sentries pursuing him were distracted by his mother as she jumped on them, screaming vigorously. Lomo jumped into the sea, abandoning his future to his fate. He kept swimming underwater and didn’t slow down when two more spears fell in the water, somewhere close by; perhaps they could have hit their mark had the sentries been sober tonight. Under the water he couldn’t hear the heart-rending scream that left his mother as the spears of the sentries maimed her. The next time he emerged, he was at a reasonable distance from the island and could see nobody pursuing him; perhaps they were too scared of the shupos. Leaving his past behind, he went on, just as his mother, his loving mother, had instructed. He was going away!

*

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

If not for the fear of looming death, Lomo couldn’t have swum this long and this far; that no sea-creature had attacked him yet was sheer luck. It was about the dawn when he got the first glimpse of a gigantic rock emerging from the sea. He desperately needed to rest his aching body and this rock could be the very twig that could save his life. He aimed for it and altered his direction accordingly, but now he felt too exhausted to reach it.  For all his deftness and resolve, feebleness had begun to defeat him finally. Lomo summoned the last bit of his willpower but was still away from the rock when first his arms and then his legs, devoid of strength, began to give up. Then came the moment when he could no longer continue and began to drown. His body, heavy as a rock, went down for a while and then hit the floor of the sea; obviously, it wasn’t too deep, for he could still see the sun above. Now he would only live until his last breath sustained him. His lungs were on the brink of imploding and he had closed his eyes.

Precisely at that moment something grabbed him around the waist and he was jerked upwards in the direction of the light; he was going up! Since the grip was gentle, it couldn’t be the lethal jaws of an animal. As soon as he broke the surface, his lungs took in all the air they could, yet he felt his consciousness ebbing away. From behind he heard something like ‘Gochakeed!’ He turned his neck to see his rescuer; it was a very strangely covered man with a body like that of a puo, the tribe’s term for seal, and flippers for feet, and was staying afloat by moving them rhythmically. His small eyes were full of kindness. Lomo felt his warm breath on his face before falling unconscious.

*

Two years later…

Lomo now lives under painstaking observation of a scientist couple of South Africa. Their abode is bigger than any hut he had seen in the jungle, and the couple are teaching him a strange language called English which has a lot of signs called ‘letters’ but hardly any of them resembles a proper tribal sign. He is provided with natural diet that primarily consists of nuts, fruits and semi-cooked meat, and is allowed to wear the clothes he doesn’t find too restrictive. Marsha, the daughter of the couple, who is almost Lomo’s age and is called ‘the Martian’ by her parents, plays football with him and goes to some place called ‘school’ every day while Lomo is taught things at home. If Lomo now knows that small white boats aren’t decapitated swans and airplanes don’t swallow people, the credit goes to Marsha.

One day an excited Marsha shows Lomo a newspaper page with picture of a boy whose facial features, skin color and even clothing habits are quite remarkably like Lomo’s. The bead garland around the boy’s neck compels Lomo to think of another tribe the patriarch had once talked about.

Marsha points at the picture and says slowly and clearly, so that Lomo could understand her, ‘Doesn’t he look like you? But know what? He was killed. This boy in the picture, someone killed him.’ She runs a finger across her throat and then points at the picture again.

Lomo knows what ‘kill’ means. ‘Why?’ he asks incredulously.

Marsha has no way to explain to him what racism means, so she says, ‘His skin color. They didn’t like his skin color.’ She runs a finger over his arm. ‘Skin-color.’

Lomo has understood what she means, but it makes no sense at all. Killed for color? Perhaps there is something Marsha doesn’t understand.

‘Tribe,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘Tribe. City tribe.’

‘Maybe,’ Marsha shrugs, unable to make much of his words.

Then they start kicking a football around.

***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nitin Sharma has loved stories since his childhood. An author of seven published books (fiction and academic), he penned his first short story ‘The Tribe’ in 2019. His books belong to multiple genres and he loves horror and comedy. He was invited to New Delhi World Book Fair- 2013 as a guest author. He is a voracious reader and incorrigible foodie. Currently he lives in Gurgaon near New Delhi. It is his dream to write unique and meaningful books for young readers.

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