When he had been travelling for two weeks, perhaps more, he could not be sure, Pele came to the base of a black mountain. His feet hurt and his white canvas shoes were brown with dust. There had been no big roads, just narrow mountain paths that he followed up and down until they brought him to some human settlement or a solitary dwelling. He would partake of the hospitality of the starving inhabitants and continue on his journey.
Everywhere he stopped, he was told he should go to the Village of Weavers. Rumour had it that there was enough food and water to be found there. They might let him stay and build a home. In the last habitation where he was told this, a man gave him detailed directions to the Village of Weavers.
Pele decided to go, if only to keep travelling. He did not know if he wanted to build a home. He did not know what he wanted; except hunger, thirst and physical pain, he felt nothing. The journey could take him anywhere, or nowhere. The mountain lay between him and the Village of Weavers. It was a hard climb and when he reached the top, the sun had begun to sink low on the horizon. Pele stopped in his tracks and looked around him. He had never seen such desolation in all his travels. Before him stretched miles of barrenness. The earth was so dry that the soil no longer looked like soil. It had cracked apart, every brittle vein and ligament exposed, looking more like sun-dried sponge with big holes running through the sod. The brown colour had gone from the soil and if the traveller were to describe it, he would call it grey, death-grey. It had long given up the struggle to sustain any form of life. His eyes scanned the horizon for people, though he asked himself how anyone could possibly survive here.
To the east, he saw a knot of houses. But as he began his descent, he saw that they were dilapidated sheds crumbling to the ground, the few remaining posts vainly holding up the overhanging roofs of thatch. They looked as desolate as the dead fields. Everything looked abandoned. He decided to spend the night in one of the ruins and set out early for whatever else lay in his path. He was some distance from the base of the mountain when he saw movement. Two dark figures emerged out of the sheds and stopped by a large rock, looking up at him. Were they human or were they spirits? He could not tell. His pace slowed down; he was surprised that he could still feel fear after weeks of lonely travel. He watched as the figures began to move again, almost gliding through the air rather than walking on the dead earth. And as they came closer, something calmed him a little.
It was only when they spoke that he realized they were human. ‘You have come far, traveller. We have no food, but you may shelter in our house. That is our way. We never turn a traveller away and it will soon be night, so you may be our guest.’
Pele looked at them, from one to the other. They were covered in coarse black cloth from shoulder to knee. From their gentle ways and the thin voice, he guessed they were women, though there was nothing else about them to tell their gender.
The woman who had spoken was so gaunt that he could see the shape of her bones under the paper-thin flesh. In fact, the shinbone of one leg was completely exposed and had calloused into the same grey colour as the earth around their dwelling.
They came closer to him, and he struggled not to show his shock at their pitiful state. ‘Who are you? What place is this that I have come to?’ he asked softly.
‘This was once the village of Noune, traveller, before a great famine destroyed our people. Our fields are no longer cultivable as you have seen; they haven’t been for many years, from a time when we were not born. Our elders told us that our newborn babies died because their mothers’
milk dried up and there was nothing else to give them. It was really more merciful that way, for if they had lived, they would only have had to suffer terrible starvation for much longer. They say that those of us who survived have done so because of the great hope of the ancestors who used to say that our ancient misfortune will end when the Son of the Thundercloud is born. Everything will be transformed then. He will bring rain and mist that softens the soil, and the earth will sprout grain and grass again. There will be food and life. This is why we have been kept alive.’
Pele had seen famine, but this was unimaginable desolation. The earth he stood on must have been dead for a very long time. He tried to recollect if he had ever heard of a great famine of the past from his parents or grandparents, but he could not remember.
‘Please tell me, if you can, how long has this famine lasted?’ he asked.
‘Seven hundred years,’ the first woman answered. ‘And how old are you then?’
‘I am four hundred years old and my sister is twenty years younger.’
Pele stood rooted to the spot, unable to breathe for a moment. He simply stared at the women, mere skeletons covered in tattered cloth. They both had stringy hair that had not been combed in years. Their eyes were about the only things alive in them, glimmering faintly with expectation as they answered his questions.
When he spoke, it was a whisper. ‘How have you survived all this time? What have you found to eat when there has been no food for so long?’
The two women shivered and held each other’s hands. They were silent for a long time and Pele worried that he had said something very painful to them. They must have seen all their loved ones die one by one without being able to do anything to help them. He regretted asking the last question and lowered his gaze. But a small sound escaped them that sounded almost like a giggle. He dared to look at them again, and saw that they were laughing softly.
‘Hope, sir, we have been living on hope. Every morning when we wake up, we eat hope, and so we live to see another day,’ the younger woman said.
Her sister asked, ‘Tell me, traveller, do you have any knowledge of the Son of the Thundercloud? Do they speak of him where you come from?’
The question, and their eerie laughter, caught Pele completely off guard and he lied, ‘No, I have never heard of him.’
Excerpted from ‘Son of the Thundercloud’ written by Easterine Kire, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.
After losing all his family in a terrible famine, a man leaves his village with just the clothes on his back, never once looking back. For endless miles he walks through a landscape as desolate as his heart. Until two ancient women who have waited for rain for four hundred years lead him to the Village of Weavers where a prophecy will be fulfilled. A single drop of rain will impregnate the tiger-widow and her son will slay the spirit-tiger. The traveller will help the woman bring up the boy. He will witness miracles and tragedy and come close to finding a home again. And he will learn that love and life are eternal.
In her new novel, Easterine Kire, winner of the Hindu Prize, combines lyrical storytelling with the magic and wisdom of Naga legends to produce an unforgettable, life-affirming fable.
About the Author:
Easterine Kire is a poet, novelist, short-story writer and writer of children’s books. Her first novel, A Naga Village Remembered, was also the first Naga novel to be published in English. Her other novels include Bitter Wormwood (shortlisted for the Hindu Prize 2013) and When the River Sleeps (winner of the Hindu Prize 2015).
Easterine Kire’s work has been translated into German, Croatian, Uzbek, Norwegian and Nepali. In 2011 she was awarded the governor’s medal for excellence in Naga literature.