III: Not one good deed is free
The vultures do not live on our mountain. Their nests are below in the tall trees on the mountain’s northern side. The old stories told of how the vultures had their nests on the mountain long ago, before they descended. They had to leave when they were hunted by the new human inhabitants of the mountain. We never saw their new nests because they were much lower than it would have been safe to lean over and crane out of the steep edges of the mountain to look down and see them. But we always knew they were there because we were told they were there. We co-existed and cooperated with the vultures in two major ways that circumvented our death or theirs. They clean up the flesh of our dead and we hunted them for meat and feathers.
The mountain top is fairly large with three main parts to its diverse terrain. There is the rough rocky area with huge boulders wonderfully placed on each other in the surrounding hills. Our village is sited on this area. Secondly is the trees and vegetation covered area. On this part of the mountain top is an impressive purely naturally occurring orchard with Banana, Pawpaw, Palm, Mango, Orange, Pear, Guava trees; all randomly but closely flourishing in the dark, thick, moist, rich soil on this part of the mountain. The father of our village found them all already here, high up on the mountain’s fertile loamy soil.
The soil must be as old as the mountain itself and we are very certain the mountain grew out of the ground beneath it, carrying the rich dark soil up with it. The trees must have sprout out of seeds brought up by birds of all sizes to crack and eat or simply eat but didn’t. Or yet still carried in the many birds’ dung, littered all around. The constant rains and fog watered the soil. Particularly during the rainy seasons, this area gets quite swampy because water flows downwards from the smooth rocky hills to settle there and it never drains away. Finally on the mountain top is the mainly smooth broad, flat rocky southern side.
This part rises upwards gently from the centre of the mountain, raising almost steadily outward towards the mountain’s edge and then curves sharply downwards to form the steepest and smoothest side of the mountain, all round to its whole eastern side. It is on this broad flat inclined rocky side that we fed an ageless population of vultures with the flesh of our dead, stripped off the corpses’ bones ourselves.
The bones are thrown over the steep edge of the smooth eastern side of the mountain, all the way down to the sparse shrubby vegetation of the brownish green plains beneath, with the sole aim of terrifying the people of the village below. My father is also a soft hearted man and not the type for aggression or violent behaviour. As a grown man, it also his duty to take his turn in performing the bone stripping ritual at very numerous burial vigils. He always found it difficult to sleep for days afterwards and late on some of such sleepless nights of his, I will hear him talk to my mother about the stomach retching rituals.
He spoke of how they have to use their bare hands to tear off most of the flesh from the corpses’ bones. He described how they dug their finger nails deep into the bloody moist slippery fiber texture of the dismembered dead bodies and slowly collected the body fat. This was set aside for use in stuffing tightly woven small baskets, which are used as the main water containers by the villagers. He had vividly described the gory act. I am glad I never actually saw it performed.
It was always done somewhere within the rocky hills, by the rotating bunch of assigned elderly men, while the rest of the villagers kept an all night noisy festive vigil in the village’s centre clearing. Later when the men had finished, just around visible dawn, everyone is assembled to witness the tossing over of the bones down the steep side and the spreading out of the flesh on the broad flat inclined rock for the vultures. The gathering disperses as soon as the vultures start to perch on nearby rocks. I learnt from eavesdropping on his night talks that the father of our village had designed this type of funerals.
It is so obvious that he had designed this sort of funeral with the main aim of instilling more fear into the hearts of the people residing in the village on the plains below the mountains. This type of barbaric and quite dehumanizing burial style was however naturally convenient for the entire village community that resided isolated so high up on the predominantly rocky enclave. It had its own special merits, which also suited the overall objectives of the founding father as well.
It ensures that our men are hardened and fearless, for only the strong hearted and brave person would painstakingly embark on tearing away all the flesh off the bones of the corpse of a person well known to them. The almost routine display of the heaped flesh of the dead people also attracted the mass of flocked vultures, which we hunted for their meat and feathers afterwards, when they linger around after their meals. Then finally, this sort of nauseating funeral further heightens the fear of the dreaded mountain by the people below it.
Naturally this kept them away until such a time when the grand quest of The Return is activated and actualized by the sudden secret descend of the mountain people for a final war, destined to settle all the cruelty meted out to our ancestor. We were fond of imagining and jeering at what the village people beneath the mountain thought of the bones we threw down after a funeral. We visualized them being terrified with the sheer mystery of the fresh human bones they discover repeatedly beneath the mountain every now and then.
These were bones the residents beneath the mountain would obviously know had been thrown down from their superstitiously named Sacred Mountain of the Gods. They could tell this by the telling bloody markings of the bouncing and sliding bones as they descend down the smooth steep rocky surface of the high mountain. Because they revere and worshipped the mountain, they also feared what they didn’t know about the mountain and the supposed spirits that dwell on the rocky mountain’s misty cloud covered high summit.
This partly superstitious and mostly uncertainty induced dread, ensured they distanced themselves from the mountain side and never attempt to climb it. Not a single attempt is recorded of anyone trying to climb from the inhabitants of the village beside the enormous mountain. Meanwhile, high up on the mountain the peace our village enjoyed was truly based on the fact that we are all actually related. Everyone in the village is from the same single founding father and his two stolen wives. We all considerably look alike; with hard dark hairy skins and thick black springy hair that we always shave off clean with sharpened vulture bones. Our bare scalps are well oiled with bird fat or palm oils. We all go about completely naked, always.
We remain in our compact home shelters most of the time because it is mainly cold up on the mountain, in between the brief display of the harsh low blazing sun. We huddle up together in tight groups of separate families, with the grown ups taking turns on the outside of the family huddled up clusters. These huge embraces kept us warm on cold nights. It was an effective way to keep warm. Occasionally we all stay outside our shelters, around a large fire to tell stories, sing songs and dance. Only the Eldest has the ability to make fire, it is never taught to anyone else. For this reason fires are not lit within home shelters. This had ensured trees weren’t habitually cut down to satisfy this purpose, indiscriminately. Only naturally broken down dead branches that fall off the trees, are collected for these large fires.
The usual cold gets unbearable most times and many families slept underneath extensively woven stringed-out fresh grass mats, patched up and decorated with feathers and leaves. Few privileged families, normally the family of the serving Eldest, own very old sewn monkey hides to cover up with. These were gotten long ago when the earliest residents of our village was still alive and monkeys still lived on the mountain top too. The monkeys were hunted to extinction on the mountain. It is also known that some of the monkeys bravely leaped into the tall trees beside the mountain side, to escape certain death.
I started wanting to leave the mountain right before your birth. I wanted to leave the village and its people. I wanted to find a peaceful place to live, away from the hostile people of my village, to be more comfortable amongst people that will appreciate me for what I am and my child too. I knew that the rejection I was experiencing will be extended to you soon enough and it would have stayed with us for the rest of our lives. I also was certain that The Return will be called in my life time or most certainly in yours. I was then in my early labour pains. My pains were said to be more than usual because you were an unclaimed boy, my mother had confirmed that assumption as well.
This all made me more scared of The Return. I feared I will lose you in the war. The thought occupied me and scared me greatly. I was even more terrified when the Eldest started calling out all the men and older boys for extra war practice every other night. For the very first time younger boys were allowed to take part in performing the bone stripping ritual of the Burial vigils. The Return was surely upon us and it appeared to be quite soon. The many signs were all around us, even though it wasn’t mentioned out-rightly or discussed. It was almost as if thinking and talking about it will carry our words and conversations down the mountain and alert of our planned descend.
One unusually warm night, not long after I had you, I had to come out of my family’s home shelter to empty my rumbling bowel behind a large boulder, just outside our modest abode. It was a dark night; I could not even see my own hands as I spread them out in front of my stooped and squatted frame to stabilise myself as I went about the strain of forcing those relaxing deep breaths that empty the bowel. I had fully bent my knees, taking the ideal position for emptying my bowel. When I finished excreting and was cleaning up my rear by rubbing any residue off against an edge of the boulder, I saw a bright fire lit up at the edge of the north of the mountain, just near the trees.
I silently crept to the spot, hiding myself in the shadows regardless of the darkness of the warm night. On getting there I saw a group of men slowly lowering very long ropes down the northern side of the mountain. I counted twenty ropes lowered and each of the ropes lowered had its still visible end tied to a big strong tree’s trunk. I stayed hidden, choosing to remain there until the group of men had left before I moved, for I feared they might see me. From the dark shadow cast behind a mango tree by the lit fire, the Eldest stood up as they prepared to leave the spot. He had sat there supervising the entire work. He spoke clearly to the few men with him as they gathered round the fire after they had finished lowering all the ropes.
He told them that the entire village’s war force would descend on the plains and attack the people beneath as soon as the night air gets cooler and every sleepless head down below is surely in a deep sleep at last. He assured them that the next morning would be a victorious one after the entire grown up male population of their village had successfully conquered all the people of the plains below. Then I realised with such dread that The Return was the very next morning! It was the moment we had existed for and had waited all our lives for.
The Eldest spoke with such vigorous venom that I almost did not recognise him as the gentle man that gave the best judgments, the most reasonable advises, told the funniest jokes and sweetest stories. He was actually this mean blood tasty, war crazy old man after all. Because I had tarried behind a while longer, I saw that they had left the ropes unguarded. When I returned to our damp home space, I was deep in thought and so apprehensive of the imminent doom of my family and loved ones, as I was convinced it would ghastly turn out to be. I looked at my sleeping family and felt no doubts for what I thought was the right thing to do. I picked you up from my sleeping space, as you slept peacefully and crept out silently. Holding you close to my body, in the fast cooling night air, I still kept in the shadows, as I quickly stole away from home completely unnoticed.
As I quietly hurried towards the tied ropes, I kept strictly behind the barely visible huge moon-coloured boulders that are scattered around the village, with the hope that I would remain invincible and not a dead give away mobile silhouette against visibly brighter background to any observant onlooker. When I got to the trees, I set about untying the ropes with my shaking fumbling hands. I untied eighteen of the ropes and dropped them over the mountain’s edge, all the way down; with no regard for all the hard work that was put into making them. I left the two closest ropes untouched and kept part of the last rope I had untied and used a small part of it to strap you, still sleeping, firmly on my back, before tossing the rest over the edge too.
Then I used the two ropes still tied to the trees, to slowly descend the mountain. I was scared and slow as I went over the edge in the dark; holding the ropes firmly, and climbed down with you strapped to my back. It took so long getting down but I did it with blistered palms. I got very tired as I got lower. Bruised, tired and scared, but I did it with you fast asleep strapped to my back. My actions had a selfish intension but I knew it was the right thing to do. I had since paid for it with the loss of my people’s trust. I paid for it with the fear I still experience. And I paid for it with regrets and much pain to follow.
I had since learnt that evil would be punished, no matter how long it takes and nothing is truly free. Since nothing goes for nothing; it must always be purchased and bought some how. Someone pays a price. Someone always pays something for it; tangible or not, whether knowingly or otherwise. Not even freedom is completely free. There are many kinds of currency for payment. Freedom is the absence of force and force is ever present, then freedom is non-existent. My son;
‘Not one good deed is free
Or unpunished evil to see,
Nor something for nothing;
Someone pays something.’
(1 PART TO GO)
Pictures used with the kind permission of Tracie Louise