In the warm summer evenings, when the sky was bright with stars, Kadavai would come out of the village and sit on the river bank, until the night was half advanced towards the dawn. Only when everyone else had long gone to bed would he return to his hut.
Nobody ever cared to ask why he did this, but then nobody felt comfortable around Kadavai anyway. He had a face like a statue carved out of granite, and a reputation as a warrior that had never been challenged amongst the Seven Villages. The people spoke to him with awe and respect, for it was well known to all that one day he would be the Great Father of the Seven. Even the children fell silent when he walked past their games, and watched him solemnly until he was out of sight. But none of them knew the worm that ate away at Kadavai’s soul.
Each night after returning from the riverside, Kadavai would lie silently on the pallet next to his wife, and stare into the darkness for hours until, sometime before dawn he would fall into an uneasy slumber. And though she shared all other parts of his life, Kuruvi never could find out what it was that kept him from his rest and roiled his dreams so that he cried out in his sleep.
Kuruvi was as slender and pretty as Kadavai was stern-faced and muscular, as vivacious as he was silent, as gentle as he was fearsome, like the sparrow after which she was named. Many were the young men of the Seven Villages who had sought her hand when she was younger, and many were the hearts she had broken when Kadavai had swept her away and made her his own. But she had found happiness with him, and had hoped that he, in turn, would be happy. But that, it seemed, was not the case.
Many times over the years, Kuruvi had tried to ask her husband what the matter was, but he had never answered her. It was not as though he was being rude – it was as though he didn’t hear the question at all. He would stare blankly at her, and finally turn away, as if she had said something that was completely meaningless.
But Kuruvi was never the kind to give up. One evening in the last of the summer, she left the hut and walked to where he was sitting by the riverside, in the light of the stars.
He saw her coming and looked away, staring over the water, even when she was standing at his shoulder. “Go away,” he said, in the tone which he used only when he demanded instant obedience, which everyone in the village knew and feared. “Go back to the hut.”
“No,” she replied. She defied him often, but this was the first time she’d denied him when he’d used that tone of voice. “Not unless you tell me what’s troubling you.”
For a moment she thought he would get up and walk away, but all he did was turn away so he was sitting with his back to her. She waited, and when he said nothing more, she sat down beside him. After a while she touched him, gently, with her long thin fingers. He stiffened, but allowed her to massage his neck and knead his shoulders, until she felt him relax a little.
“What is troubling you?” she asked him again. “If there is anyone who has a right to know, it’s I.”
He said nothing for so long that she thought he was not going to answer. Then she heard him sigh, very softly.
“A bad time is coming,” he said.
“A bad time?” She was confused. “What do you mean?”
“The worst of times,” he said. “So bad that they will make the worst of the past look like heaven, and death will seem mere kindness.”
“I don’t understand your words,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. “What are you saying?”
Instead of answering, he shook himself, as if waking from a dream, and glanced over his shoulder at her, with a smile. “Nothing,” he said. “It’s a foolish fancy. Come here, it’s a beautiful night.”
So she went to him and they made love on the riverside, and then they went back to their house, but there he cried out again in his sleep, and she held him tight until the dawn.
“The river will run red,” he said quietly.
She looked at him, startled. It was several days later, and she was sitting beside him on the river bank, watching him as he watched the stars. It had become a routine over the past few days for her to come out and sit with him, and he no longer objected. She, too, had stopped asking him questions. She just sat beside him, stroking his arm or shoulder gently, until it was time to go back to the house.
Tonight, as the fireflies had flitted through the bushes like sparks, he had stirred, glanced at her, and spoken.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “The river will run red?”
“I can see it,” he said, conversationally. “It’s coming closer. Each year, each summer, it comes closer.” He pointed out at the river. “Can’t you see it too?”
“See what?” Kuruvi leaned towards him as though that would help her understand what he was talking about. “I don’t see anything but the river.”
“Can’t you see the glow in the sky, as though the clouds are turned to blood? Can’t you see the red on the water, so that you can’t tell if it’s reflected fire, or if the river runs red with the blood of the people? Can’t you smell the burning?” He sighed suddenly, and shook his head. “No, of course you can’t. It’s only I who can see it, sense it.”
“Husband,” Kuruvi said, “I can’t see anything.”
“I’ve been watching it creep closer,” Kadavai replied, still looking out at the river. “It began several years ago, and at first I thought it was merely a dream. But it returned, more and more vividly. Each summer it grows clearer, and nearer. I can see the fire in sky, the red in the water, and I can smell the burning in the air. I can hear the screams.”
“What is it?” Kuruvi asked. “Can you tell me that? Is it that the village will be destroyed by fire?”
“All the Seven Villages,” her husband said, “not just this one. By sword and fire, and the danger is on the way. Not all the warriors of the clans can hold it back or turn it away. I do not think the Seven will see another summer.”
“What can we do?” Only later did Kuruvi feel faintly surprised that she had not doubted him for a moment. “Should we approach the Elders? The Great Father himself?”
“And what will they do?” Kadavai snorted. “Even if they don’t dismiss it immediately as the raving of a madman...”
“They won’t,” Kuruvi said. “You are the greatest warrior the Seven has seen, and a future Great Father. Everyone says so.”
“Yes, and that is the only reason why they won’t laugh at me to my face. But can you doubt that they will laugh as soon as my back is turned? And what can they do anyway – since I can’t even tell them where the danger is coming from, and from which quarter?”
“Is there anything anyone can do, then?”
For a long time he was silent, and she felt the warrior spirit flow into his muscles, as surely as if she could see it.
“Yes,” he said. “There is.”
The people of the Seven Villages had dwelt on the bank of the river for as long as the oldest myths went, as far as the beginning of the world. They rowed on it in canoes, and fished and swam in it, and it was the centre of their existence. But they never followed it upstream to its source, for there dwelt mighty Moonjoor Himself, the Maker of All Things, and to gaze on Him was the greatest sacrilege anyone could imagine.
“It is the only way,” Kadavai said, as he painted his Symbol of Power on his great canoe, the biggest one the village had. “I shall have to travel upstream, until I either find safe haven to which to move our people, or Moonjoor. If I find safe haven, we can still escape the doom that is rushing upon us. If I find Moonjoor...” he shrugged. “If I find Him, I’ll see what happens then.”
Kuruvi had watched his preparations without comment. “What if someone asks where you have gone?” she enquired. “What do I tell them?”
Kadavai shrugged. “The truth. What else?”
“They will say you are committing a sacrilege. And not everyone loves you. Your enemies will not let this opportunity pass.”
“Tell them I have gone insane if you want. It does not matter. What matters is whether I can save the Seven.“
Kuruvi inclined her head, as if listening to an inner voice. “When do you intend to start?” she asked.
“The days are growing shorter, and autumn will soon be here.” Kadavai applied the last of the paint and pulled the canoe round so that the Symbol could dry in the sun. “We have no time to lose, so I’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
“If you want.” Kuruvi turned away. “I’ll get things ready for you.” There was something in her voice that made him glance at her sharply, but she was already on her way back to the house.
That afternoon the clouds began to gather, and as darkness fell the sky split apart with lightning and rain crashed down in torrents. There could be no question of sitting out on the bank that evening, so Kadavai and Kuruvi had an early dinner and went to bed. Kadavai waited until he was certain she was asleep, and then got quietly up and went out into the storm and down to the river.
By the illumination of the lightning flashes, he pushed the canoe down to the water and climbed aboard. He had just picked up the paddle when the boat swayed. He looked up to see his wife staring down at him.
“Did you really think I’d let you go alone?” she asked, holding on to the boat. “Have you really that little understanding of me?”
Kadavai stared up at her, his granite face betraying nothing. “I wanted you to be safe,” he said at last.
“Safety means nothing if I’m to be without you and worrying.” She stepped into the canoe and sat behind him. “Besides, it will be a long and weary journey, and I can paddle as well as you.”
Kadavai did not argue. There was no point arguing with her when she used that voice. With a thrust of the paddle against the bank, he pushed the canoe into the river and round to face the current.
The thunder cracked overhead and the rain came down harder than ever as they left the village behind them.
Dawn had not yet lit up the east when they saw the first of the other boats.
Hours before, the rain had weakened to a drizzle and finally stopped, the thunder too dying away to a distant grumble. The clouds overhead had broken up, throwing a mix of moonlight and shadow on the water, making it difficult to recognise the shape of things.
At first, Kadavai and Kuruvi had both paddled, until the fury of the storm was past and they could afford to take it in turns. Now, because the water was more dangerous, they were paddling together again.
Here the river was joined by another, the mingling of the two streams of water being marked by flotsam and turbulence, due to which they had to be extremely alert. Otherwise they might not have noticed the other boat at all.
It lay low in the water, long and black and menacing like a lurking crocodile. Kadavai could see the hunched figures of men in it, strangely misshapen in silhouette, moving rhythmically as they paddled in unison. There was another behind it, and another, sailing down from the tributary river.
The first boat had already noticed them, and begun to turn in their direction. Kadavai and Kuruvi could see the water under its bow, white and clear against the dark of the river, and knew it was picking up speed. With the current behind it, in only minutes it would be within javelin range. They could see a figure in the prow already poised, arm held back and ready.
Not for nothing had Kadavai earned a reputation as the greatest warrior the Seven Villages had ever seen. Courage in battle he had, but more than that he had the skills to use that courage effectively. Of all those skills, he was one of the greatest canoeists the Seven had known. And Kuruvi his wife was at least as good as he, and in many respects better.
So it was that Kadavai dug a paddle into the stream, swinging the canoe round so sharply that it spun round on a new heading like a live animal, and the javelin hissed by overhead and splashed harmlessly into the water. And so it was that he and Kuruvi leaned forward, paddles thrusting into the bosom of the river, and shot past the long black boat and upstream. A quick glance over their shoulders showed them that the long boats were clumsily turning to follow them.
“We must warn the Seven,” Kuruvi said, her breath coming in gasps.
“There’s no way we can get past them and downstream,” Kadavai called over his shoulder. “Besides, the people could never prepare in time. And so long as they follow us, the Seven have a chance.”
“If they catch us, they will kill us,” Kuruvi said.
“All the more reason that they should not catch us,” Kadavai said. “Are they still following?”
Kuruvi threw a glance back over her shoulder. “Yes.”
“Good,” her husband muttered. “Come on.”
By the first light of the dawn they could see the war-bonnets on the men in the boats, tall and ragged, which had made them look misshapen in the darkness. They could see the flash of war-paint on their faces and chests, and hear their strange ululating cries. They could almost smell the miasma of hatred that hung over the three long boats. And they knew that the attention of the men was fixed on them, nobody else.
“Why don’t they simply go on downstream?” Kuruvi wondered. “They don’t have to chase us, do they? The Seven are there, defenceless before them.”
“They don’t know where the Seven are,” Kadavai replied. “They may not even know the Seven exist. They are merely out to destroy anything and everything they find.”
They did not speak again for a long time. It was weary work fighting up the current, and yet it must have been harder work for the enemy warriors, because their boats were so much heavier and longer than the canoe. Yet they did not give up.
“We can’t go on like this forever,” Kuruvi said. “Sooner or later we must rest.”
“Neither can they,” Kadavai pointed out. “Sooner or later, they must, too.”
And yet it seemed as though nobody would rest. All through the day they toiled upstream, and behind them the three boats came on, implacable as stalking crocodiles, not getting any closer, but not falling behind either. When darkness fell, Kadavai took the chance of steering the canoe to the bank, and they drew it up on the shore, hoping the others would pass by. But, instead, they too made camp a short distance downstream, close enough for the couple to see their bonfire on the shore. And when they set out before dawn, the first light showed the three boats back on their trail again.
Out on the river, the winds bring the tidings of the changing seasons. The warm breezes of summer give way to the gusts of autumn, and winter comes like a knife cutting pieces away from the stars.
Kadavai and Kuruvi had long since lost track of the days and weeks, and now only kept track of time by the changing seasons. Each day they paddled further up the river, through great forests and between towering cliffs, sometimes carrying the canoe up rapids. They had long exhausted the food they’d had with them, and ate what they could find, succulent fungi on the banks, edible plants by the river, fish that they could catch. And behind them, sometimes lagging, sometimes closer, the three boats came on, still following.
Long ago, Kadavai and Kuruvi had given up all thought of ever returning to the Seven Villages. It was enough that they were leading the danger away from the Seven, upriver; but as the months passed, even the thought of the Seven faded from their minds. It seemed as if they had always been on the river, fighting their way upstream.
They hardly spoke any longer, but they hardly needed to. By now each could tell what the other was about to do in advance, almost as if they were the same person. They didn’t even have to look at each other any longer. They had almost stopped looking back at the pursuers, and it had ben many weeks since they had talked about them.
One evening, when winter had the land in its icy grip, the river suddenly broadened out into a lake so deep and clear, so tranquil, that the canoe hung over the reflection of the stars as though it was floating up in the sky among them; and the cold seemed not the cold of winter so much as the absolute cold of the spaces between the worlds.
And then, at last, Kadavai put up his paddle, so that the canoe drifted to a stop in the water, and smiled at his wife. “This is it,” he said. “I don’t want to go any further.”
She, too, had taken up her paddle. “Nor, to tell the truth, do I. But what about the...others?”
Kadavai smiled again. “I think, in these months that they’ve been following us, they’ll have been changed as much as we have. It would be remarkable if they hadn’t. Perhaps they will have found a measure of peace. And even if they have not...”
Kadavai shrugged. “They’ve been following us all the while. At least they deserve to be told our appreciation for their tenacity.”
“They’ll be here in the morning,” Kuruvi replied. “We’ll know either way.”
Overhead the stars wheeled slowly, and the night passed, and beneath them the river flowed slowly along its course down to the Seven Villages, and beyond, far, far away to the waiting sea.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012