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A huge saloh tree stood on the lakeshore, its blossom-laden branches stretching over the water. The soft white petals shimmered like cotton down in the morning light and honeybees flitted back and forth among them. Gazing up, Joeun smiled and rubbed his graying beard. It’s going to be a good year. Those bees will make plenty of good-quality honey.
A breeze crossed the lake, rippling the surface and carrying the scent of blossoms. Joeun began walking along the shore to check the other trees but then stopped abruptly, his eyes caught by an odd sight. Little yellow-beaked birds were flocking on the bank, chirping excitedly and pecking at something on the ground. It looked like a mound of mud.
He froze as he realized what it must be. A body … The unlucky soul must have drowned and been washed ashore. It was small, probably a child. What a lousy way to start the morning. What am I going to do now?
He was too far from any village to get help with a burial. But he could not bear to leave it lying there, especially if it was a child. Making up his mind, he strode toward it. As he drew near, he noticed a peculiar musk-like odor, strong and sweet. He stopped and glanced apprehensively at the lake. Could there be Toda nearby? But the surface was calm, and there was no sign that anything was about to lunge at him from the water. The odor appeared to be coming from the body. Kneeling down, he examined it closely. The limp form, coated from neck to toe in glue-like mud, looked like a clay doll. The pale face, however, was relatively clean. Joeun grimaced at the sight … The poor girl. She’s such a little thing …
Her face was turned toward him, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. Suddenly, a blade of grass near her mouth fluttered. He bent close and felt her breath brush his cheek. “She’s alive!” he exclaimed. He slapped her face and shook her by the shoulder. “Hey! Hey! Wake up! Can you hear me? Wake up!” She groaned weakly and opened her eyes a crack, only to shut them again instantly. “This is serious,” Joeun muttered. He slipped an arm beneath her and gently lifted her off the ground. Although completely limp, she was very light.
Elin came to her senses at the sensation of warm water enveloping her body. Her hands and feet stung, as if her skin had been scraped or cut. Someone held her head and washed her hair. Wet cloth clung to her limbs. Had she been put in the bath with her clothes on? Something hard jabbed her in the back. It was a very strange bath.
She opened her eyes and saw a stranger’s face looming over her. “Ah, you’ve come to, have you?” he said. She blinked and tried to feel what was digging into her. It seemed to be a board.
The man laughed. “Sorry if it hurts. Just hang on a little longer. I don’t have a bathtub big enough for you so I filled my little punt with hot water. I can’t tell if you’re injured or not with all this mud on you.”
Her body felt like lead, and she could not speak. She closed her eyes and fell back into a deep sleep.
The next time she opened her eyes it was evening. She was lying alone in a silent room. She gazed blankly up at the ceiling. It was a very odd ceiling. It looked like a piece of cloth made from woven twigs. The westering sun cast an orange glow on the wall, and dust motes danced slowly in the light. Her body was burning. She closed her eyes and was sucked back down into oblivion.
Terrifying dreams, snatches of nightmares, followed her. Spray wet her face. The Toda’s sinuous, undulating body moved beneath her. She burned with pain, and her body felt so heavy. Again and again, she heard her mother’s voice, her last words. Again and again, she saw her swallowed by the swarm of Toda. Each time she relived that scene, a sharp pain raced from her gut to her chest, as if she were being slashed in two. She could not even weep. Something gnawed away at her insides, causing her such agony that she could barely breathe.
She felt something cold against her forehead. A large hand weighed on the quilt, and another slowly and gently rubbed her back. “It’s all right. It’s just a dream. You’re dreaming. There’s nothing to fear.” As she listened to that deep, calm voice, the nightmares slowly loosened their grip.
Joeun watched the girl’s face as he wiped away the beads of sweat with a damp cloth. Her cheeks were as red as apples, and she was breathing shallowly. She had been crying out, disturbed by dreams, but now she was quiet. A day and a night had already passed, but she had regained consciousness for only a few moments at a time before slipping away again. He had tried to administer a medicinal brew of laoo to bring down her temperature, which was far too high, but she had not been able to swallow it. Perhaps it was too bitter. The only thing he had succeeded in making her drink was the juice of a citrus fruit named kalimu, thinned with cold water and mixed with honey and some very precious tabu chimu, queen bee milk. Considering how much she was sweating, he had better keep administering the juice.
The child could only be about ten, and she was so slight that he feared she might not survive such a high fever. Tabu chimu, however, was potent enough to transform an ordinary larva into a queen bee. He could only pray that it, along with the honey, would be enough to sustain this child’s life. It was the sound of her weeping that he found the hardest to bear. She must have been through something horrific. Her cries were those of a child longing for its mother. They were wrung from her body in wracking sobs that made his throat catch.
What on earth happened to her?
Her clothes were different, resembling those worn by the Wajak, the “mixed blood” people of Aluhan territory far to the east. But it was three days’ journey on horseback to the nearest Aluhan border. How could a little girl like this have traveled so far alone? Where were her parents? And why had she been covered in mud and Toda slime? Her arms, her palms, her legs from the knees down—every inch of skin that had not been protected by clothing had been lacerated.
There was another thing that puzzled him: the color of her eyes. She had only opened them briefly, but he had been startled to see that they were green … Could she have Ahlyo blood in her veins? What a troublesome find. This might turn out to be more than he could handle. He sighed. “But now that I’ve taken her in,” he murmured to himself, “I hope she makes it through.”
His greatest fear was tetanus. Wherever the mud had been ground into the gashes, her skin had begun to fester. If her wounds were just infected, he could treat them. But if she had tetanus, there was nothing he could do. Worrying, however, would get him nowhere. It was better to treat the swollen cuts than not. He rested his chin in his hand and thought.
Should I try it or not? It’s an effective cure for inflammations, but it’s also a strong toxin. Even some adults react to it so strongly that they stop breathing. Is it safe to use on a child?
The girl opened her eyes. Her lips moved. She must be thirsty. Joeun slipped a hand under her head and raised her gently. With his other hand, he grasped a bowl and brought it to her lips, pouring a little of the juice into her mouth. She drank it with small gulping noises.
“Is it good?” he asked. She seemed to be lucid. Maybe now she would be able to answer. “Have you ever been stung by a bee?” he asked. She looked up at him with fever-blurred eyes, but then shook her head ever so slightly. “So you’ve never been stung by a bee. You’re sure of that?” She nodded and then closed her eyes. Laying her down again, Joeun made up his mind.
He stood up and walked over to a shelf, from which he took a bamboo tube and a beeswax candle. He lit the candle and walked outside into the chill night air. Bundles of dried hasaku, an oil-rich plant, hung under the eaves. He grabbed a bundle and lit it. Thick smoke curled up from the stalks. Going round the house, he walked over to a grove of trees where a row of beehives stood. He went up to one, knocked on the lid, and opened it. Slowly, he waved the smoldering torch near the opening, wafting smoke over the exposed surface. Once he was sure that the bees swarming around the edges of the nest had grown quiet, he picked up first one and then another and slid them into the bamboo tube.
“Sorry to bother you,” he murmured and, closing the lid, returned to the house with the tube. Inside, he held each bee up to the light and removed its stinger with a pair of bamboo tweezers. He laid the stingers out on a cloth and returned the bees to the tube. Then he clasped his hands in prayer for a moment. Without their stingers, these bees would die. They were only tiny little insects, yet to Joeun each one was a precious treasure. He was sorry, but he could only ask for their forgiveness.
“And now…” he whispered. He pulled back the covers and examined the girl’s arms and legs. The worst wounds were on the inside of each knee. He frowned. The saddle on a horse could rub a rider’s legs raw in this very spot, but the wounds on her legs looked more like they had been sliced by something sharp. Joeun gingerly stuck the stinger into the swollen skin next to the open sore and pulled it out again immediately. She jerked slightly and frowned, but then closed her eyes again. He repeated this process for her other wounds, taking care not to insert the needle very far, so as to limit the amount of toxin he injected.
“Well, that’s done … I just hope it works.” He wiped the sweat from his brow and, placing a bowl of falan, an antidote for bee poisoning, close at hand, prepared to stay up all night to watch over her. If her fever dropped by morning, she was sure to recover.
* * *
Elin woke to the sound of birds warbling. A breeze wafted in from somewhere, bringing with it the scent of morning dew on grass. Her nightmares had vanished without a trace, and she could see the world around her clearly now.
She turned over slowly and saw a large man sitting cross-legged on the floor beside her bed. He was sound asleep, with his arms folded and his head hanging. The weight of his head pulled his body forward, but when it reached a certain point, he jerked himself upright, eyes still closed. Then, once more, he began to tilt.
Elin watched him lazily. He must be very tired. He drooped further and further forward, then suddenly pitched onto the ground, smacking his head loudly on the floor. He groaned and opened his eyes, then stared around him with a startled look as if wondering what had happened. Elin covered her mouth with her hand. She shouldn’t laugh, but she couldn’t help it.
The man rose and blinked. “So you can laugh, can you?” he said, then burst out laughing himself. He was a complete stranger, as huge as a bear, with a bushy beard, yet, perhaps because of that laugh, Elin did not feel afraid. He stopped and looked at her again. “Seems like your fever’s gone. You look refreshed … Do you feel all right?”
“Good, then. Let me see those cuts on your knees.” He pulled back the covers, and she realized that she was wearing a very large shirt tied at the waist. Although the sleeves had been folded over multiple times, her hands were barely visible. She must be wearing the man’s pajama top, but for her it served perfectly as a nightgown.
He examined her knees and looked relieved. “The swelling has gone down a lot since yesterday. You’ll be better in no time.” He pulled up the covers. “You’ve got strong luck, you know. You went to the brink of the netherworld but came back again.”
At his words, memory flooded her mind. The sight of her mother overrun by a swarm of Toda filled her eyes, and a searing lump of pain rose from her stomach into her throat. She burst into tears. Mother … How she longed to see her. Mother, Mother, Mother … Curling up into a ball, she began to weep as if the sobs were being wrenched from her chest. The man reached out and patted her through the covers. She recognized his touch. It was the same hand that had comforted her while she lay dreaming.
Text copyright © 2009 by Nahoko Uehashi
English translation copyright © 2018 by Cathy Hirano
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Yuta Onoda