The time of the baskets was near again. The air was electric throughout as village life turned from the rituals of everyday life to preparations for the annual celebration. Smiles were more common; neighbors stopped in passing to greet one another where a simple nod or wave of the hand might have sufficed at another time. Waking from the winter, the community sang a verse for the old year and cheered a chorus for the new.
Tessy, whose given name was Teshka, meaning “dark water”, was a solitary iceberg in this warming sea. The other girls her age were laboring over their baskets with the greatest of care, soaking the reeds, then carefully selecting each according to its shade, width and thickness so as to achieve the desired appearance. There were some displaying a smooth transition from a light base to a dark rim; others showed not the slightest variation in color. Some adorned their baskets with pieces of cloth woven into the handles, others fashioned braided rims, while still others used reeds stained in bright colors. Tessy's basket was to be featured this year due the fact that she would be too old to participate next year. Still it sat next to her bed, hastily constructed, plain and not nearly representative of a girl of her skill.
She lay on her bed and toyed with an extra length of reed. The sound of the beating drums matched the rhythm of her heart; it was almost hypnotic. There was much to do on a beautiful spring day, but nothing appealing enough to draw her out.
A sliver of sun shone through above the door, illuminating the dust particles dancing in mid-air. Tessy tried to focus on just one and follow its progress, but found it impossible.
Suddenly the band of light grew drastically wider as the door swung open and the silhouette of her sister appeared in the frame. Tessy's eyes diverted reflexively, but she showed no other acknowledgement of her visitor.
“You want to talk?” she asked.
Tessy just shook her head.
“How about if we just hang out for awhile?”
Tessy gave a shrug of her shoulders. Her sister stepped in and closed the door behind her. She walked over to the bed and picked up the basket.
“Is this finished?” she asked.
“Does it look incomplete?” Tessy's attempt at sarcasm came out flat, as if she couldn't even summon up the emotion to match her words.
“Oh, it's all there…well made, too.” She held the basket up at various angles, examining every detail of the workmanship. “This one will last for many years with little mending.”
“But there's nothing remarkable about it.” The statement was almost a question.
Her sister nodded but said nothing. They stared silently at each other.
Tessy and Lorta had always been able to understand each other. When they spoke, it was as if the words were but an obligation they had to fulfill, while the real communication took place on some deeper level. Occasionally, they dispensed with the conversation and just knew.
When Lorta took the podium during the Baskets the previous year, Tessy had known; in some way she thought of herself as an accomplice. No, they had never spoken of what Lorta would say, neither wanted to admit it. But both knew what would happen; from the time of her father's banishment, they knew. As her sister spoke out against the actions of their leaders and the entire village stood frozen and the chief trembled in outrage at her words, Tessy smiled and gave her sister an almost imperceptible nod. And both knew that it would not end with Lorta's banishment before the time of the baskets returned.
No one would ever hear the sisters discuss further protest, for no such words were ever spoken, and all assumed it would soon end.
Lorta sat on the bed and took her sister's hand…and knew.
In what amounted to the center of the village, preparations were being made on a grand scale. Young men worked diligently to clear the square and level the uneven ground where the natural forces of winter had had their way for a season. The raised platform on which the village leaders would sit during the formal ceremony was undergoing the annual rituals of changing out weak or rotten components. Poles were being erected around the perimeter and along the stage from which lanterns could be hung as the festivities ran on into the night.
It was quite obvious that the business of celebration was as much a part of the economy of this village as was fishing or the building of huts. Though this was the biggest celebration of the year, it was by no means the only one. There were rites observed for such events as new births and nuptials, installing a new leader, the beginnings and endings of each season of planting, fishing and hunting season, and even such events as the recovery of the last villager to be infected by a virus or plague.
Each element of each ritual for each event was symbolic of some moment in tribal history and was observed precisely to avoid the sin of offending the honor of an ancestor. Though change did occur, it was not embraced. Only a momentous occasion, worthy of remembrance through future generations, was cause for alteration of these almost holy sacraments; only the boldest and bravest ever recognized such occasions when they occurred. The present was always subservient to the past, for the dead could not reconsider; their wisdom could not be debated.
Overseeing the preparations was the tribal chief. He slowly strode through the bustle of activity, an aura of importance surrounding him. Multiple layers of colorful robes hung over his three hundred pound frame; a simple headdress of white clothe draped down from a height well in excess of six feet. Making him appear even larger was the fact that he never stooped as most tall men do. He kept his head held high, an intimidating presence, despite the fact that he never raised his voice or gave in to his anger. Being raised in an honored monarchal family, bred for his sovereign post, he had learned the confidence that commands respect and the uncivilized behaviors that never would.
At the chief's side walked a woman of about his same age, but with a nearly opposite persona. She kept her eyes down, moved her mouth minimally as she spoke and twirled the cloth of her dress nervously about the index finger of her right hand.
They stopped at the far side of the square and turned to watch the progress being made.
“It brings me great joy to watch.” The chief made a wide sweeping motion with his arm. “Every year, it is new all over again. Each festival the greatest ever held. Would you not agree?”
The woman at his side nodded reservedly. “Yes, it is wonderfully exciting.”
“Your daughter is to be at the center of all of this,” he hesitated and looked directly into her face, “will she be worthy of the honor?”
“Yes, she understands what is to be expected of her.”
“That is very good. You have had the shadow of grief over the time of the baskets for two years now, and it would be good for your heart to feel pride.”
“I am proud of Tessy. Very proud.”
The chief laughed. “As you should be, yes. She is growing to be a strong young woman. She will be more than capable of protecting and teaching her children. You will be honored through her offspring.” As suddenly as it had appeared, his jovial manner retreated. “Lorta had the same qualities about her and dishonored her family with them. I would be saddened to see the same thing happen with Teshka just as you say goodbye to her sister. Those who came before have been greatly troubled, it is time we show them that we are worthy of the heritage they have given us.”
“Yes, I have been weak in raising my children. I did not teach them as I should have.”
The chief's persona again shifted back to the lighter side as he chuckled, then gently stroked her cheek. “Dear woman, you bear a heavier burden than is your share. It is true that the behavior of young women is a direct reflection on their mothers. It is also true that their father led them away from the wisdom of the old ones. You must not blame yourself for his misguidance, you must only now correct it for your young daughter.”
She smiled at his encouragement, and for the first time that day held her head up.
“Now go with my blessings and guide your daughter.”
The woman bowed deeply and excused herself.
The chief made off in the opposite direction, confident that he had precluded any embarrassment Teshka may have been planning. Just as his manner had altered without the bother of transition, so now his thoughts were off in another direction, trying to recall which blessings he had spoken on his people the previous year had come true, so he could recant them before the blessing of the new year. The fact that it had been a prosperous year made the task a pleasure.
Life revolves around nature in a society devoid of “modern conveniences”. Such concepts second and third shift work do not exist. The day begins just before sunrise so that one can be fully prepared for the day's tasks at first light.
On no day of the year is this truer than on the festival of the time of the baskets. There is a bustle of activity as last minute preparations are made, plans are reviewed and those not directly involved with the execution of the celebration stand and soak up the adrenaline of those who are.
Again, Tessy was excluded from this collective jubilation, though this time she had company. At the edge of the village, the edge of their world as they knew it, Tessy and Lorta embraced as their mother looked on from a distance. The two held each other at arms length, locked eyes, then it was over. No tears, no words.
When Lorta looked back at her mother, she saw this tormented woman turn and walk away. The sharp jerking of her head and heaving of her shoulders betrayed her sobs despite her best efforts to hide them.
Then Lorta walked away.
Tessy allowed her mother to hide her grief. She didn't talk to her; neither did she go out of her way to avoid her. She simply took her mother's lead and went about her business as though nothing had changed. It really wasn't as difficult as she thought it might be.
She put on the colorful dress her mother had made for the occasion and tied her hair back with strands of cloth dyed with the berries that were so abundant in the forest. Reaching under the bed, she pulled out the basket and stared at it.
Her mother, who had been watching her set her hair, assumed she was reflecting on the loss of her sister on what should have been a joyous occasion. She walked over and wrapped her arms around her daughter, then went back to her business of getting ready for the day ahead.
Tessy knew what her mother was thinking and didn't contradict her, though she was far off the mark.
Where the entire culture around her was based on endless tradition and honor and respect for their ancestors, Tessy and her sister, having inherited the spirit of their father and only the outward traits of their mother, lived by a different code. It was one of questioning accepted practice, embracing new thoughts and ideas, and above all else, honor and respect first for those in the present, then for those in the future and only when it didn't conflict with the first two, for those who had lived and passed on.
When Tessy stared at her basket, it was her father and sister she thought about.
Her father, who was called Farro, had received his banishment for his part in defying the leaders over a dangerous ritual in which young men scaled a tall sheer rock face on the night of the first full moon after the berry harvest. Unlike many of the customs they practiced, no one knew what this one symbolized, or how it originated. One thing that was known was the danger. On average, a death occurred every other year. The year before her father's banishment, three young men fell from great heights. Two died within hours. The other one lived on, though he would never climb again. Nor would he walk, or ever wake up in the morning without pain.
This began Farro's yearlong campaign against the climb. He argued that it was quite likely that when it originated, the rock face was much easier to climb, but the years had weathered away many of the rough edges and many more had been broken off during the climbs. If no one knew any reason for the climb, why lose so many future fathers, husbands and leaders? Why not do something symbolic of the climb to honor all who had fallen? Or move the climb to a better location?
No one would even discuss the matter. All said Farro had no sense of who he was and where he came from.
On the night before the climb, he took matters into his own hands. He filed the roughest parts of the rock, chipped away the few remaining outcroppings, and then greased the surface with oils and animal fat. When the crowd gathered at dawn to witness the spectacle, they were embittered-none more so than the chief.
The climb was still attempted; no one dared challenge the custom, even under such circumstances, but no one succeed in the least degree.
Farro was cast out from his home, the only place he had ever known. There was no rule as to where he had to go, only that it must be far enough away that no member of the village would ever catch sight of him.
Then came the incident with Lorta, standing up in front of everyone at the time of the baskets, shameless. Where other young women would have quietly mumbled a blessing to the people on their day of honor, anxious to slip away from the stares of pity, Lorta held her head up high and challenged the collective thinking. More emboldened than even her father had been, she spoke out against the laws that had cost so many young men their lives, and now her family, its patriarch.
As she went on, the chief finally overcame his offense at her behavior and rose to challenge her. The hand of one of the other leaders cautioned him off; no matter the indiscretion of the honored one, it was her time and even the chief could not take that away.
But when it was over, she was pulled aside and an impromptu meeting of the leaders was called. Lorta received her sentence without question. What she had done had not been done in haste without considering the consequences, and she was prepared for what they did.
Now Tessy saw in the basket she held all the conflict between the honor of her people and the honor of the two people she looked to the most for guidance. It represented the struggle between what is right and what is accepted, between truth and myth, between doing the easy thing and doing the right thing.
She had given her word to her mother that she would not speak against the leaders or the ones who had come before when the time came for her to give her blessing, and she would never go back on her word. Still, though no one would blame her if she did, she could not let it go at that.
The sound of drums pulsed through the air, filling it; the sound seemed to emanate from every tree, every rock, even the people who danced around the square. Everywhere were people dressed in the most colorful cloth imaginable, many adding to the ensemble with flowers in their hair. The sweet smell of roasting fruit permeated the village.
The celebration was on.
Festive dances came together involving long ropes that were woven as participants passed the ends back and forth in step. Many of the old men sat on benches along the perimeter of the activity, skillfully playing reed instruments. In the trees, young men watched the young women from a vantage point safe from awkward introductions.
Then, as if a silent alarm had alerted the village, all revelry stopped.
The people quickly settled in to watch the formal part of the celebration.
A row of children entered from the back of the square, dressed in identical yellow robes. They proceeded to the stage where they sang a medley of songs about birds, clouds, rivers and other juvenile subjects, followed by a simple traditional dance.
After the cheers and applause for the children died down, the eldest member of the tribe was helped up to the podium to share a memory from her childhood; she told a story about a strange man from far away who had visited, and though everyone had heard the story before, the laughs and applause were still very warm and the frail woman left the limelight smiling.
At this point, the chief rubbed his hands together and rose to face his people. This was the moment he had looked forward to so much.
“My people, my people, what a delightful thing it is to stand in front of all of you today on this joyous occasion. Our ancestors have obviously been very pleased with us during this last year, as they have seen the blessings spoken on this village to fruition. The blessing of new life has been received in abundance with many new sons and daughters born healthy; the blessing of fair weather was shown not to be a false one as we saw no drought, no extreme cold, no flood and a strong yield of crop this past year. This year I have the greatest of faith that they will see to our many blessings in much the same way and we will retain their great favor in the maturing of our many young who join us today in this celebration. May they all grow in wisdom and strength, leading their families and our people in the coming years to great prosperity of mind, body and spirit… and may the sun, rain and wind again be gracious to our people in the coming year.”
The chief, swelled by the belief that he was responsible for his people's good lives, returned to his seat and crossed his arms in front of his ample midsection.
Next to take the stage were the young women with their baskets. Under the approving looks of the adults and the brazen stares of the tree bound young men, they paraded their creations first around the square, then past the row of leaders, each of whom placed some symbol or gift in them. Finally, they passed the chief, who gave each one a shiny gemstone or coin.
When all the other girls had taken their places, sitting on the edge of the stage, Tessy approached the podium.
The crowd was silent, each face betraying an eagerness to see how she would perform. Would she show herself to be a strong, yet respectful woman? Would she choke on her words? Break down? Speak out as her sister had done? Though few approved of what Lorta had done, and none would admit it, many hoped for a repeat performance.
Tessy stood soundless. She looked directly into the faces in the crowd, moving her eyes slowly from one to the next.
She did not smile; she allowed her face no expression.
The people, who moments ago had the upper hand in wondering what this young woman in her precarious situation, would do, now found themselves uneasy. There was a rustling as legs crossed, uncrossed, then crossed again. When Tessy's eyes met with another pair, the contact was instantly broken as the person on the other end of her stare suddenly noticed something of great interest at their feet. Minutes passed, with no change. The chief cleared his throat loudly, but Tessy never flinched. In the midst of the silence, she could hear her mother begin to sob, but Tessy never wavered.
Ten minutes had passed and the chief had had enough. He started to rise but the hand that had cautioned him the previous year did so again.
“This can't go on indefinitely,” he whispered.
“This is her time. We can't go on until she is done.”
“I'll not interrupt her if she speaks, but she can't just stand there and say nothing.”
“Then approach her as a friend. Ask her if she's alright.”
The chief crossed the stage and the attention of the entire village focused on him now.
“Teshka,” he started, “are you okay, child?”
Tessy looked at him as he asked the question, then turned back toward the crowd. The chief was at a loss. Rarely had he been defied. Never had he been disregarded. It was intolerable.
“Young lady, you will not be permitted to carry on this way.”
No response came; Tessy simply continued staring at her audience.
The chief grabbed her arm. Still she made no acknowledgement.
“You must speak. Do the right thing and speak your blessing. Or an encouraging message. Or do as your sister did. Whatever you do, do it now!”
Tessy looked up at him and shook her head slowly, then turned away to face the people.
“We will then end this ceremony without your blessing. One of your friends will take your place and you can join your father and sister in disgrace.”
At this, one of the leaders stood. “Begging your pardon, but the rite is established. She cannot be replaced unless she is unable to fulfill her obligation and it is obvious that she simply refuses. I do not believe we should now do that which her father was banished for.”
“Very well,” said the chief, “we are held captive by a
stubborn young woman. An entire village at the mercy of one child…my people, I hope you will forgive my interruption. Teshka, do what you will.”
She did. Tessy stood silent into the night. No one left and no one spoke. The torches were lit, and then finally burned themselves out. Many in attendance slept intermittently.
Near morning she began to wonder where this was taking her. She obviously could not stand forever. So she sat. There were a few murmurs at first, but no one challenged her.
Many of the villagers also wondered what would come of the standoff. No demand had been made. No negotiations seemed eminent. Who would win? What did winning mean?
The standoff continued through most of a week. The smell of unwashed bodies permeated and hunger and loss of sleep was apparent on the faces of those in attendance. Tension was high and it was obvious that something had to break.
Near the end of the sixth day, the temperature began to drop suddenly, followed shortly by a stiff wind. It was obvious that rain was coming. With it came the hope that the impasse would break. Surely the girl would not continue this in the rain and cold.
But she did. Seeming almost oblivious to the rain, she sat rigid, eyes forward, still silent.
The crowd huddled together for warmth, some pulling extra layers of clothing above their heads.
Finally, one man in the crowd spoke up. “Are we really going to stay here in the rain because of her stubbornness?”
“We have no choice. We must remain here until she is done. It has always been that way.” Said a second man.
“We'll all catch our death. It's ridiculous.” Replied the first man.
Then a young man high up in one of the trees, bolstered by Tessy's success to that point, spoke out. “How many of us died in the climb? How many more have lost the ability to enjoy life? If we are bound by tradition to the point of death, then this should be no different.”
The chief, restrained from acting on his anger to that point, saw an opportunity. “Young man, I may not be able to do anything about the young lady here, but you are out of line.”
The chief was horrified to find his warning met with jeers by the adolescents in the branches.
Then, with alarming quickness, general mayhem took over. Adults below shouted and threw anything they could get their hands on at the boys. The boys leapt down on their heads and shoulders, bringing many painfully to the ground. In a flash, a riot was on.
Tessy gaped at the sight in front of her. She was beyond belief.
“NO!” She shouted. “NO!”
The commotion broke at the shout from the recently mute girl. All eyes were on her again.
“You just don't get it.” She appeared genuinely disappointed in them. Weapons were dropped. No one looked up.
Looking over the crowd, she saw her father and sister in the shadows. She ran into their arms where she sobbed tears of relief.
Turning back to the crowd, she found that they were still focused on her.
“So be it,” she said, “you wanted it, here it is, my blessing to you. May the next year find you learning from your mistakes instead of turning them into traditions to be repeated for future generations.”
She started to say good-bye, then decided not to waste the words.
©2002 Charlie Mann
Charlie Mann is a thirty year old husband and father living in Portsmouth, Virginia. When he is not writing, he works as an outside machinist for Newport News Shipbuilding. His work has appeared in print in The First Line, and online in The Evening Gossip and Wild and Whirling Words. He also has an upcoming two part story appearing in The Ripple in June. Currently his writing is focused on a novel, tentatively named Family Bible. You can write to Charlie at [email protected]