‘Mother, look at the river! All the fish are dead!’
Naida swallowed and emerged from the undergrowth to see her young son standing by the riverbank, looking out at the rushing water beyond. The river, which usually gushed blue and was filled with energetic silver fish, was now a dull mud colour. The fish were lifeless, their bodies carried by nothing but the river’s flow.
She had noticed the river’s decline in health two days ago, when dark stains appeared within its depths, and had warned everyone not to collect water from it unless they were desperate, hoping that by now any danger to them might have passed. But it hadn’t, and now their water stores were running dry, even with the help of the forest’s daily downpour. Something had to be done, for if there was something in the water powerful enough to kill all the fish, then how would her village stand a chance? She had to confront the Elder and force him to look beyond the needs of his sickly son, hard as that might be for him.
‘Stay away from it, Ren. It’s dangerous,’ she told her own son as he made to prod a stick at one of the dead fish floating by.
‘But I’m thirsty, mother, and my water skin is empty.’
‘Then you’ll just have to wait until we find some juicy fruit, or a leaf full of dew. That will quench your thirst.’
Ren pulled a face, but Naida ignored it. Still, she understood all too well how he felt. She herself had gone without water since noon the day before in order for him and his sister to drink, and had been sustaining herself on the small collection of fleshy fruit that they had stored away.
Gathering up their empty water pots, they made their way back to the village, treading the well known path through the undergrowth. Hearing the noise of the forest cheered Naida; the birds were calling spiritedly to each other, the primates were foraging up amongst the trees and the hum of insects filled the air, proof that not all life had been affected by the decline of the river. If there was one thing that Naida loved about the forest, it was that she was never alone there. There were always other creatures darting about, reminding here that it was home to so many.
Ren, however, had been introduced to the world outside the forest by travellers and was overcome by curiosity at the gadgets they possessed. For him, the forest which his mother loved so dearly seemed dull in comparison. Even so, he respected the life around him and helped his mother around the village, practicing their traditional ways. Soon he would start learning how to hunt with his father, though Naida could hardly believe he was old enough already. It felt like it was only a few short months since he was a babe in arms, not years.
They reached the village an hour later, greeted by Naida’s daughter, Laka. She was a few years older than Ren and not nearly so fascinated with the outside world as he was. In fact, the thought made her nervous, for she knew that there would be so many sights to see and people about that she would not be able to take it all in.
‘Your water pots are empty again, mother?’ she asked, taking one from Naida and shaking it just to be sure.
‘The river is still ill. The fish are dead and the water is no longer clear. I must tell the Elder. He has to take note of it now.’
‘The river has worsened? What will we do?’ Laka said, despair in her voice.
Naida put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. ‘The Elder will know what to do, so don’t alarm yourself about it,’ she said, much more confidently than she felt. ‘For now, help your brother gather more fruits so we may drink the juice, and ask the other children to do it for their own families. However, it would be unwise to tell them in detail just how bad the river has become until I have spoken with the Elder. There’s no need to cause a panic.’
Laka nodded and went off to find her friends, trailing her brother behind her. Naida inhaled deeply. It was late afternoon; the Elder was usually seeing to his son at that time and would not take kindly to being disturbed. Perhaps she would be allowed to wait in his hut until he returned.
She made her way to the middle of the village where the Elder’s hut was located. Nothing about it suggested that it belonged to him other than a small, delicate symbol carved above the entrance. It was even the same size and shape as the rest of the huts.
Naida took a breath to call inside, but before she could do so, the Elder’s wife, Ayme, appeared in the doorway. ‘Come in, Naida,’ she smiled warmly. ‘There’s no need to stand outside. You know that you are always welcome here.’
Naida smiled back at her and took up her invitation. It was cool inside and dry, at least compared to the dense humidity outside. Ayme brought her a small cup of berry juice, and they sat drinking it in silence for a moment.
‘My husband will be back shortly,’ Ayme said after a while. ‘These past few days have been difficult for him; our son’s condition is getting steadily worse. He fears that our only option is to take him to the outside for treatment there.’
‘But how would we pay for something like that? The outside is run with money; we can’t simply trade goods.’
The flap around the doorway opened and the Elder came in, looking more drawn and dishevelled that Naida had ever seen him before. ‘That is something we shall discuss if the need comes to pass.’ He took a swig of the juice that his wife offered him and sat down with them. ‘Now Naida, what is it I can do for you? It’s seems we spoke only recently.’
‘That was two days past, Elder. And I would not trouble you again if it wasn’t so urgent,’ she replied. ‘Elder, my son Ren and I were down by the river to collect water not long ago. Do you remember I told you something wasn’t right about it last time, and I advised everyone not to drink from it until it had cleared up? Well, this time, not only was the water discoloured, but it was murky and every fish we saw was dead.’
‘So it really is too dangerous to drink, then?’ Ayme said, her eyes wide. ‘This is very disturbing news.’
‘Now, now, let us not get ahead of ourselves. Do not forget, fish are far more sensitive creatures than we. What affects them may not affect us at all,’ the Elder said, scratching his beard musingly. ‘It may well be the case that some large animal has died further upstream and its remains are now polluting the water. I shall go myself and check. We should make no more assumptions until I return.’
Naida inclined her head and stood up, bowing to them both. For some reason, the Elder’s words did not comfort her as much as she had been hoping. It was true that animals did sometimes die near the water and pollute it as they rotted, but she had never seen the river look like that in all her years. He had been too quick to jump to such a conclusion, and even though he said he would inspect the cause himself, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was hiding something.
She remembered a few weeks back; the Elder had three outsiders visit him. He said after they left that they had merely been scientists, observing the natural world, but now she felt that he had been lying. But why would he? What was it that the Elder was trying to conceal from everyone?
After the sun had set and Laka and Ren were asleep, Naida went out into the village by herself. Her husband was out hunting and wouldn’t be home for another three days, along with the rest of the hunting party. The wives of the other men in the party were all younger than Naida, and so she rarely met with them while their men were gone. Now, however, she passed them outside their huts. Despite the failing light, some still sat repairing clothes and weaving baskets, but all talked animatedly to each other.
She smiled a greeting at them and they nodded in reply, but she did not feel like stopping. Instead, she planned to go to the Elder’s hut again to ask if she may go with him when he was to inspect the river. When she got there, however, Ayme was alone inside, readying herself for sleep.
‘Naida, I did not expect to see you again so soon,’ she said, her eyes questioning.
‘Forgive me, Ayme, I did not mean to disturb your rest,’ Naida apologised.
The older woman smiled. ‘My dear, it is perfectly alright. You are obviously still troubled by something. Tell me, what is it?’
Naida sighed. ‘I am still concerned about the river. I was hoping that the Elder would let me go with him when he inspects it so we may both see it clearly and discover the cause.’
‘You suspect my husband may not be up to it?’ Ayme asked, pulling her blankets around her shoulders. The night had turned cold, and her body no longer kept warmth in as it used to.
‘It’s not that,’ Naida hesitated. ‘I feel as though he is disinterested in finding the true cause. He may be right in his suspicions, and I hope that he is…but I want to be sure. I have never seen the river like that in all my life, nor have I heard anyone tell of something like this happening before.’
Ayme pursed her lips. ‘I admit that I, too, feel as though he is not as concerned as he should be. However, he has been true to his word, for already he has gone to examine it.’
‘At night? But how will he see it properly? Even with a lighted torch it will be difficult. Did you not find that strange, Ayme?’ Naida said, shaking her head.
‘Yes, but perhaps it is his plan to follow the riverbank a good way up and wait until the first light to see its true state,’ she said, but deep lines had formed on her brow.
‘How long ago did he leave?’ Naida pressed.
Ayme thought for a moment. ‘Just a few minutes longer than you have been here. If you are swift, then you may be able to catch up to him.’
Naida put her hand on Ayme’s shoulder and thanked her, before leaving the hut as quickly as she could. She took one of the torches blazing by the storage hut and made her way down the path to the river.
She was even more cautious at night than she was in the day, because many creatures came out in the darkness; including some that could bring instant death to her if she were bitten or attacked. Fortunately, the torchlight made many of them scatter from her wake when she passed through, leaving her unscathed. Ahead of her, in the distance, she could just make out the light from another torch. It must be the Elder.
She was surprised that she had caught up to him so quickly, but then she remembered that his age had started to affect him these past few years and he was no longer the fast hunter that she had grown up watching.
He was now almost at the riverbank; it was just beyond the next clump of bushes to his right, but instead of turning towards it, he carried on. Where was he going? Curious, and more than a little suspicious, she decided to follow him. She dulled her torch so that the flames flickered as low as she could get them, pursuing him further and further until she was sure he must be lost. She herself had only been this way a few times before; it was not a good place for hunting or gathering foods, so the villagers tended not to go there.
Yet the Elder’s pace wasn’t hesitant, it was strong and confident. Ahead of him, she suddenly spied a bright light in front of him. Some of it was firelight, but the rest looked as though it was the strange electric lights used by people on the outside. What were they doing here? Had they come to make a settlement, or were they just a large group of travellers like the ones that visited the village? No, she thought, they were up to something else.
As she got closer, she saw that all of the trees in the area had been cut down, and enormous pits lay there instead; great chasms going so deep into the earth that looking at them was like looking into nothingness itself. Tents were scattered about around them, as well as huge metal structures- machines, she remembered they were called- that stood dormant on the site. The whole area glistened with moisture, despite the fact that it had not rained for hours. Sloped as the area was, she could see the run off spilling downwards, in the direction of the river.
The Elder continued on, right into the heart of the light. Naida hid behind the surrounding bushes, watching as he neared a group of people sitting around a campfire. As they saw him approach, they called out behind them and another man appeared from one of the tents. His eyes darted to the Elder, and immediately his mouth broke into a wide grin, like a jaguar watching particularly easy prey before it attacked. He beckoned to a young boy by the fire, who scrambled up obediently to stand beside him.
‘Ah, Elder Cirilo,’ the boy said, translating the man’s rushed foreign words as he energetically took the Elder’s hand and shook it. ‘What may we do for you on this fine evening?’
‘You said that our village wouldn’t be harmed,’ the Elder said, sparing the man any niceties.
There was a pause as the boy explained what the Elder had said, but then the man’s reply came. ‘And I am true to my word, am I not? None of your villagers have been affected by our work here.’ The man gestured broadly around him, the smile still spread across his face.
‘But they could be,’ the Elder said. ‘Our river is polluted; the water is discoloured and the fish are all dead. Where are we supposed to fish, and what are we to drink from now?’
The grinning man frowned deeply. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. If the river is polluted, then it has nothing to do with us, I assure you,’ the boy replied for him, casting a wary glance at his master.
‘You lie. I know that you use strange potions to kill the plants and make the soil ready for your digging, and other such poisons in those foul things you have that cause explosions.’
The man’s frown turned to a scowl and, as he instructed the boy with what to say, it was clear that the tone of his voice had dropped all its pleasantness. The boy shrank back, but his master gripped him tightly on the shoulder and forced him to address the Elder. ‘I believe your son is terribly ill, is he not? Did we not promise to pay you a good sum of money to take him for treatment in the city in return for your silence?’
The Elder said nothing. Naida caught her breath, not wanting to believe what she’d just heard. Had these people really promised to pay the Elder for his silence? No, it couldn’t be. Even if his son was ill, the Elder wouldn’t accept money from such people…would he?
‘I want double,’ the Elder said finally. ‘Give me double what you offered and I’ll leave you alone.’
‘Done,’ the boy said bitterly after another brief instruction, lowering his gaze so that he wouldn’t have to look the Elder in the eyes. ‘But there will be no exceptions after this.’
Naida couldn’t stop herself. She ran out into the light, in full view of all the people sitting there. ‘Elder, you can’t do this! What about our village?’
‘And who is this pretty one?’ the boy said, though he was unwilling to use his master’s lecherous tone. ‘Hiding in the bushes, were we?’
‘Naida, you should not be here,’ the Elder said quietly. ‘Please go back to the village.’ He did not turn to her as he spoke, but instead chose to look blankly ahead of him.
‘I will not,’ Naida said. ‘Why are you letting these people keep you quiet with their paper money? Even if it is to save your son, how can you allow them to poison the river and risk the lives of our people?’
The Elder made no remark, as though her words had fallen on deaf ears.
‘We cannot let them do this. We could all die if we let this carry on…my children could die, Elder!’
‘Or you could move,’ the boy said for the grinning man, whose interest in Naida had turned to disgust now that tears were wetting her cheeks. ‘There are plenty of places to move your village; after all, the rainforest is rather large.’
‘No,’ the Elder snapped. ‘Our people have lived in this village for generations. We will not move.’ He looked up at Naida, staring at her as if seeing her for the first time. He saw the anger in her eyes, and with it the sheer shock of his deception. He sighed, and turned back to the grinning man. ‘I have allowed you to manipulate me for too long. Why should my people have to suffer because of my selfishness? You can have your paper money back. I want you to leave, and take your machines and poisons with you!’
‘Then your son will surely die,’ the boy said, wincing as his master’s grip on his shoulder became more intense. ‘He needs treatment from the outside, treatment which a poor village such as yours can never hope to pay for.’
‘We will find another way,’ the Elder said. ‘Come, Naida, we shall return to the village.’
He turned sharply and wordlessly, and Naida followed him back through the forest to their home. When they reached it, the Elder called for a meeting amongst the adults. Naida had not said a word on the way back, and refused to speak when the other villagers asked what was going on, disgruntled at being called on so late into the night. That was the Elder’s task; his and his alone.
‘My sons and daughters,’ he began, addressing them all. ‘I know that the hunting party has yet to return, but I feel I must speak with you most urgently.’ He paused, trying to form his words. ‘I have been lying to you all.’
The people whispered in shock and Ayme fell weakly against the walls of the hut. Naida went to Ayme’s side and let the older woman lean on her shoulder.
‘Several weeks ago, some outsiders came to speak with me. I told you that they were people known as scientists that study the natural world. They were not. These people want to destroy part of the forest so that they can dig for minerals beneath the earth, to sell for their precious paper money. They told me that if I remained silent about their plans, then they would pay for my son to be treated by the healers on the outside. I am ashamed to admit that I accepted, and even today, when I found that their methods were polluting the river, I went to them not to ask them to leave, but to ask for more money for my son in return for my continued silence. They accepted and, if it hadn’t been for Naida, I would have left satisfied and risked all of your lives by doing so.’
The villagers were too stunned at his words to speak, staring at him in silence. When finally they registered what he had said, a great uproar broke out. The crowd shouted and jostled against each other in a wave of fury and betrayal. The Elder endured their insults, and so foul were they that Naida was astounded he did not protest even once.
Then a young woman sprinted into the crowd from the hut where the Elder’s son was housed, heading straight for Naida and Ayme. She whispered something to Ayme, and though Naida couldn’t hear it over the roar of the crowd, Ayme’s reaction gave the message away immediately.
She let out a cry of despair that silenced everyone, and as they turned to her, they knew just as Naida did that the only cause could be that her son was dead. It rang through the night, lasting only seconds, but to everyone present, feeling like an eternity.
With his face turning ashen, the Elder dropped to his knees. ‘It is over then,’ he said, his voice quiet at first, but becoming louder with each word. ‘These people who wish to poison our river and dig up the land now have no power over me. They cannot play to my weakness anymore. I will bury our son and grieve for him, but then I will fight. We will fight. I and a few others will journey to the outside and seek assistance from those who are knowledgeable on such matters. I will not lay down and let these people threaten our way of life anymore.’
He took a breath and went to Ayme’s side, his body trembling along with hers. ‘But now, on this night, I will say no more. Forgive me, but I must say goodbye to my son.’ They parted from the crowd and disappeared into the hut where their son’s body now lay, and for the rest of that night the only sound that was to be heard in the village was Ayme’s sobs.
Naida felt a sadness that was deeper than any she had experienced before. Though she did not want to admit it, she understood why the Elder had gambled their lives for that of his son’s. If it had been one of her own children, then she knew she would have been swayed just as easily. It was this, more than anything, that caused the guilt she now felt eating away at her. But nothing could be done now. Death had dealt its cold hand and freed the Elder from his turmoil, forcing him to move forwards.
She walked slowly back to her own hut, slipping through the doorway to see her son and daughter deep asleep, wrapped up under their blankets. She knelt down and put a hand on each of their heads, humming softly.
Chasing the outsiders from the forest and purifying the river would be no easy task, but if the villagers stood strong, they would do it. She was sure of it.