Watu by Sara Maitland

‘There is death in the pot for the living’s food.’

Watu is in the jungle.

Watu is in the jungle, alone.

It is strange in the jungle.

[private]Despite the humming of life, the music of energy, power, growth, greed, the jungle is fragile. There is no depth or richness to the soil. Each dead leaf is stripped of its goodness by new growth so quickly that nothing sinks down into the earth.

Because it is fragile, it is competitive and cruel. The strangler vine entwines itself around the huge ficus trees and squeezes them to death in its desire to reach up through the canopy to the sun. Then insects devour the dead wood and the vine is left, a vertical spiral with an empty core. Down on the floor young trees grow to about the height of one of us and then they wait; they wait with infinite patience; they wait for years. They wait for a larger tree near them to die and make a hole in the green roof. Then the small trees make a wild dash upwards, growing twice their own height in the time it takes the moon to come back to the full, fast, faster than the other trees around them, for there is only space for one in the sun. The jungle is stirring with energy, with life and power; if we can get it, if we can win.

In the jungle it is hot and sweaty. In the jungle there are insects, so many biting feeding insects. They cling closer than a lover by night and by day. They need our blood to live on. In the jungle there is a deathly intimacy of need and desire. In the dark the jaguar carries his silken beauty, his great heavy tail and flaming eyes, to the killing grounds and the night is alive with the screams of death.

In the jungle it is beautiful and deadly.

Watu is in the jungle. Alone.

Watu is always alone in the jungle – and now is an especially perilous moment. This morning we moved on. Every so often we move on – we dismantle the village, load up the dug-outs and move on. We paddle upriver chanting the rhythm, or drift downstream languorous, telling stories, enjoying the changes, except there are no changes. Always there is the yellow river and beside the yellow river are the green trees and above the yellow river is the blue sky and there is nothing else. It goes on and on and there is no distance, no depth, no inside nor outside; there is only the jungle and it is beautiful and deadly. We need points of discrimination; we need to draw boundaries, set up markers, create clear definitions; we make them and we drive them home with the rhythms of the stories, and the beating of the drums. And we draw them on our bodies in the Rituals of the Skin.

When we move on, we come, after a day or a week, to a sandbar or a beach that makes a small clear space between the river and the trees. We have been here before but now it is new. We stop and resettle. We take the fire from the fire pot and hearth it; we feed it tenderly and then victoriously. We gather around it for the Ritual of Welcome and we tell the children the stories so that they may be safe. Pat, pat, patter like raindrops on the drums to mark the rhythm of the story, and the Teller works through the tales. The children raise their hands to their cheeks and feel the edges of the yellow circles, the sign of the Turtle Father, pricked in at birth so He will know His own. We are His People.

But Watu cannot come in the boats, because there is no place, no place for Watu. We do not know if Watu is drummer, or paddler, or baggage. We do not know if Watu is teller or tale. We do not know if Watu should be in the women’s boat or the men’s boat. We do not know, not for certain, if Watu is animal or spirit or one of the People. So Watu has to follow as best as maybe. Always, before, before this time, Watu has arrived in the end. A few days, a week, once nearly a whole moon later, Watu will creep out of the jungle, and sit at the very margin of the village, at the very edge of the jungle, in the place between. We are glad when Watu comes, but it is a dark gladness. We are frightened, we are endangered and we are guilty. Watu is the shadow.

In the jungle, under the canopy, there is always shadow, a strange darkness even at midday. The spirits like the darkness, but the People do not. Watu is in the jungle, alone, under the canopy. Watu is our shadow, our strange darkness.

Watu came in a hard time. This is no excuse. We are guilty. But it was a hard time. We have no story for that coming.

Perhaps Watu’s mother died even as the child struggled down the red river.

Perhaps a snake came into the birth hut and bit the birth friend. The birth hut is a secret place.

Perhaps Watu’s father was killed hunting.

Perhaps we did not know the child had come so we could not count the days.

Perhaps we were moving on.

Perhaps there was a sickness. There was a flood perhaps.

Perhaps one of the Old Ones took Watu, but perhaps she was very old and had gone back to the time before and chattered like the monkeys.

Perhaps that moving on went awry. Sometimes in the moving on the boats get separated and it takes some moons for the People to re-gather.

Someone took Watu. Then … this is our shame … we do not know … there is no story, there is no song, no rhythm for the drums.

After the passing of some moons, after some space too long to turn back and pretend, there was Watu, lively, healthy, crawling in the village, holding up little hands and laughing at the butterflies.

Not pricked.

One of us noticed she was not pricked. The beat of the drum faltered, the rhythm of the day was broken. There was a silence.

There are no yellow circles on Watu’s cheeks.

There are no coloured marks on Watu’s forehead.

We cannot know if Watu is a spirit or an animal or one of the People.

Watu is the space between.

Watu sits at the very edge of the village, between the river and the jungle, in the place between. We feed Watu. We are not cruel. But Watu cannot come in the boats. Cannot sing the songs. Cannot join the Rituals. Cannot touch the drums, or the spears, or the fire pot, or any of the People. That is too perilous.

Watu is our shadow, our strange darkness. And although no one wants to, even as we sing the songs in the Ritual of Welcome we glance, secretly, towards the place between to see if Watu has arrived. We are glad when Watu comes, but it is a dark gladness. We are frightened, we are endangered and we are guilty. Watu is our shadow. We are glad that Watu comes but we will be glad when Watu does not come. One day Watu will not come, the jungle will have taken Watu and we will be free.

In the dawn of the morning after the Ritual of Welcome there is the Ritual of First Hunting. This is the boys’ hunting. Because we are a wise people and not like the monkeys we never move on without good supplies so need does not drive this hunt. The new and growing power of our young warriors needs freedom, needs its moments of wildness and they swagger out on the First Hunting unguided and undirected. If they bring home meat we will feast for them and if they bring home nothing we will laugh with them.

We are proud of the First Hunters. At dawn they gather by the side of the river to oil and paint each other and they skip with glee, dancing little dances and flourishing their bows and pipes. They stamp their feet like drums and slap each other and pin feathers in their hair. The girls, watching closely, pretend not to notice, and the men and the women laugh together to see so much beauty and promise and power.

We can never ask questions about the First Hunting – it is the boys’ secret as the Ritual of Blood is the girls’ secret. It is not our business. The young ones are our promise and are worthy of our respect.

So we do not have any story. We do not know what happened. We do not want to know what happened. The boys of that First Hunting stayed out in the jungle a long time, too long. It was fully dark before they came back to the village. They came with a good-sized peccary, but they slung it down by the fireside without pride or pleasure. They were sullen and shamefaced. There was a great deal of blood on their faces – both the line of the kill, running from hair line to nose tip, and the mark of the Turtle, the mark of initiation and spirit travel running from cheekbone to ear, but messy, part obliterated or half-hearted. Perhaps they were just the daubs of blood that get smeared on any hunter in a clumsy group killing. We do not know. We cannot ask. There were nightmares in the huts that night, cries of anguish and of horror; there were blundering sounds of half-sleeping young men lurching out of their huts to vomit by the river. Next day there were gaggles of them, avoiding the elders, low-voiced and tense in the space between the village and the jungle, the jungle and the river.

Watu never came again.

But time passed and the smoothness returned – the songs are sung, the babies birthed, the People thrive. And the Turtle Father crawls out of the yellow river to sun himself on a fallen log.


The yellow-spotted side-necked turtle is an ancient species. They are very ancient, these turtles. When the continents had not yet divided but still clung together, their crafty treacherous roots still acting out stability and security, when dinosaurs roamed the flood plains that have since grown into mountains and the mosasaurs were the most rapacious predators of the seas, already these small turtles swam and laid their eggs and crept out of the dangerous waters to sun themselves on the dangerous shores. They look old. They look very old. Their eyes are small and lost in wrinkles of skin and they drag themselves on battered flippers like the arthritic feet of the aged.

In the jungle they crawl out of the yellow river to sun themselves on fallen logs. You cannot know what they are dreaming of, but tears form in their rheumy eyes and slide down their wrinkled faces. Their hard, resistant shells are green-grey, the same colour as the logs on which they lie. They ought to be nearly impossible to see. But in fact they are easy to spot. Because when the turtles come out to weep in the sunshine a dancing cloud of tiny yellow and white butterflies gathers around their heads, like confetti in a breeze, to sip the tears from the turtles’ eyes.

Listen, listen through the dark music of the jungle, listen very carefully and you may hear the drumming of impatient butterfly feet and the tiny kisses of greedy delicate butterfly tongues as they come, windblown and dancing, to drink the tears that flow from all our eyes.[/private]

The above extract is taken from Far North and Other Dark Tales by Sara Maitland. © Sara Maitland 2008. Courtesy of Maia Press, an imprint of Arcadia Books.
Sara Maitland mainly writes short stories – one of which, “Mosswitch” was the runner up in the BBC’s national short story competition last year. But she has recently published the non-fictional A Book of Silence (Granta, 2008) and is now working on a new book about forests and fairy stories. She lives in Galloway.

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