On the River
To reach the village of my mother, we took a one-hour motorboat ride along the river. The water’s color was red. The bottom of the river was visible. To the right and the left were a shield of sound. There was the sound of the river’s stream, thousands of insects, birds, and subtle movements of the leaves. There were movements on the branches, but what caused it I never knew. I might just be imagining that the branches moved.
The sun was high. “We departed a bit late,” said my father. We kept my younger brother away from the water. The lines created by the boat slicing the water amused him. He was curious about the river and of seeing his reflection on the water’s surface. Our mother made sure he didn’t fall off the boat. The ride was bumpy. The motorboat was full of people, vegetables, and chickens.
I went to the front part of the boat. The boat crew did not allow me to go too far to the front. “It is not stable,” one of the men said. It was among the first memories I have about coming to that village. The fastest way to go to there was through the river.
My mother said we are the people of the river. The supreme dragon that protects our people swims and rules on all the streams, while the supreme hornbill that protects our people flies and rules over the sky. It is the land of the dragon and the hornbill. She asked me to never forget this. I said I will not.
When they were young, they eloped. At one point in the relationship, the question of dying together came. It struck her by surprise. “What death are you talking about?” she asked him carefully. He stayed silent for a while before giving her an answer, “It has, in the end, come to this. We cannot be together unless we live in constant exile. It is surprising how pride triumphs over love and understanding.”
She looked at the man whom she loves. This was the man she acknowledged as a brave man. But the two tribes to which they each belong were at war with each other. As a warrior, that man would rage in the field without fear. But the fear of separation from his beloved was greater. As he had no fear of death on the battlefield, it would be natural that he had no fear of death for the sake of his love. He fell in love with her and she with him: this was their biggest sin.
“Can we not run away?”
“Yes, we can. But the hunters might be anywhere, as long as we stay under the sky ruled by the supreme birds.”
“To take our life is cowardly,” she looked away, disgusted by the idea.
“Either we die by our hand, or we die at the hands of the hunter. By our hand might be less painful.”
“Do you think we will wake up in the same place when we enter the world below the tree?”
“I do hope so. No stories came to us about how one wakes up in the world below the tree.”
She hugged him and felt that she could not let go. “Let us just run,” she said, holding her tears. “Let us just run and see how far our feet would take us. If the steps we have outnumbered the hunters, they might let us live in peace.”
He remembered something and looked her in the eyes. Gazing through the eyes of her lover, she knew what he thought. “Are you willing to try that?”
He nodded. He knew that if death was an option, they could voluntarily visit and travel the land of death. “If one walked past the world of human, far beyond the edge of the world, there one could descend through the valley of echoes,” he said.
“And the valley of echoes is the staircase to the world below the tree,” she said. She let go of his arm and started to gaze into the horizon. “Everyone who went there never returns.”
“Will you accompany me to climb down the valley of the echoes?”
“If death is our fate, I shall follow you into the world below the tree.”
With her answer, they decided to walk into the valley of the echoes. They knew that this meant they would leave the world of humans. They were banished by their villages, and the hunt for their life had initiated. Death was everywhere. So they walked and walked until the edge of their world. It is probable that their world was not that big. Beyond the bounded universe of their villages, their tribe’s culture and tradition, and the stories of their elders, an even larger universe might lie. But at that point, they did not know. Meanwhile, people sharpened spears and arrows, in preparation for the hunt.
There was a flower that they forbade. It was kept inside a secret garden, and guards protected the garden so no one would enter. The reason for the prohibition was its function. The flower could only be seen for the sake of remembering. But those who stare into the past too long tend to stay there. People do not want to remember, but to relive what has passed. The flower would induce sadness or become a means to escape the world. They forbade it because no one would live in the present anymore. The past might be painful, but the uncertainty of the future is unbearable. For some, painful memories are better than painful realities. So they forbade the flower, let the guards encircle the garden, and hid its location. People said they still guard the garden until today.
On the Night She Prayed
My mother was on her knees, praying. We have not heard from father for a week at that time. The last news about him was from the intelligence officer. They asked us not to worry too much. Father was under their protection. Two agents were accompanying him personally, making sure he was safe.
Mother was on her knees and continued to pray. If I think about my mother, two images come to my mind. The first image is of her kneeling and praying. This, she often does. The more pressing the matter, the longer she kneels, and she will kneel into the night. That night she knelt before her bed and placed her hand on it. She prayed. She prayed and prayed. What she uttered was unclear.
The second image is of her sweeping the floor. She was a career woman. But instead of her wearing a business suit, the image of her sweeping the floor resurfaces more often. It was never dirty. She swept even though it was still clean. The home was pristine like a temple. Even after coming so late because of her job, she would sweep that floor. She swept the floor while smiling. She would still sweep the floor when she cried. Earlier that day, she cried while sweeping the floor.
I took my younger brother to our room. “It is time for bed,” I said. “Is our mother not sleeping?” he asked. I told him that our mother was waiting for our father. “Where is our father?” he asked. I told him father went to work and on a trip. He wondered what kind of gift he would bring us this time. He liked every gift our father brought whenever he came back from traveling.
We would listen to his story about the places he went to. He would show us objects that illustrated some of his stories. Such objects he had brought from his travel destination. We would listen to him about regions beyond our island; we would listen to him about lands beyond our country. He always went on a trip. Some trips lasted long, and some lasted for a short time. We would collect his gifts and marvel at his stories. I remembered him as a great storyteller. He would lie out maps and books, point on them, and elaborate on what we did not understand.
It was the seventh night since his disappearance. The person from the intelligence officials said that my father had become a target. Some people would like to use this time of peril to overthrow the current government. They belonged to a shadow group and have infiltrated the military ranks. If our father had been killed during that one mass gathering with the farmers and woodsman, it would have sparked a chaotic situation. This would give the military a way to take control over the situation.
I neither understood nor knew about these at the time. After I followed some of my father’s documents on his working desk, I finally knew who my father was. Why he kept traveling, why all the foreign countries and unknown regions. On the news, they said that the mass gathering of the farmers and woodsmen ended in chaos. There were gunshots, and the crowd was disbanded. The police handled the situation, and nobody died. Suspects belonging to a “subversive movement” were captured along with the guns that fired the bullets. Father was neither mentioned nor shown in the news. He never existed.
I covered my brother with his blanket. His pajama was on, he smelled like the wash softener. There was thunder, and he asked whether I would accompany him because he was scared of it. I said I would. I sang a lullaby for him about a father who went to gather woods in the forest. I saw that the bed light in my mother’s bedroom was still on.
On the Day She Cursed
“Someday, you will see me in white!” she cursed all the hunters.
All the hunters were surprised by her curse.
“You will see me in white and I shall become the river which waters you all drink!
“And whenever you drink it, the pain of separation would torture your heart and haunt your sleep. There will be no peace, and one would grow weary. And from the river and the water which I am, no one can escape.
“I curse you, and, someday, you will see me in white!”