Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Sixty Eight

This chapter was written 5 November 2006.

Sebastian was alert and waiting.

He had been sitting on this particular platform for several hours, but still jumped at every sound, every movement of the branches.

Pancho was due soon, with more provisions. But he came from a different direction each trip, and Sebastian was on a different platform each time, just in case.

The weather was colder now, the skies more clear at night. The grasses had begun to turn yellow and brown, and the trees were dropping needles constantly. The few shrubs in the sparse forest were already bare, but gave a hint of the new season's growth in the healthy fat tips at the ends of the branches.

Sebastian, being a farmer's son, had already figured out that some were edible, though not all of those were palatable. He had learned that the trees, while not producing fruit, had little nuts that he could open between two flat rocks. They were familiar-tasting, and yet new to him.

He was homesick. He figured his family must have already given him up for dead, and he wondered if his father's anger had abated as a result. What would happen, he wondered, if he were to show up now?

He shook his head -- idle thoughts like that didn't help and only hurt. The chances of getting home, he knew, were slim.

In three months, they had not seen sign of any ship in that region, nor of any people other than themselves. The only sign of life so far had been the shore birds and the occasional small burrowing animal that would disappear quickly when startled. Neither of which made for tasty or good eating.

A few times, they thought they saw large animals moving through the forest or along what they had assumed to be a built-up road but which had turned out to be a wide "ripple" in the landscape. There appeared to be several, stretching out parallel to the coastline, before the land flattened out into sand and grasses again. And then gradually receded back into the sea.

But it was soon agreed that those were phantoms, wishing images called from memories, and not anything that lived or breathed. By the time the men were able to get to where they thought the animals were, no sign of passage other than a few bent blades of grass could be seen.

For, rather than a remote part of some country that had been left alone because of the wildness, they were stranded on an island. Sebastian had discovered this on his own, climbing up the tallest trees and looking across the plain. The older men had eventually come to the same conclusion after traveling for days in one direction to come upon their own camp...

At first, the men had been hopeful that they could build a sea-worthy vessel, but the trees were difficult to pull down, and the wood so dense that the men soon gave up hope of shaping them. Any raft made of trees lashed together rode so low in the water that none trusted it in the ocean's swell, let alone in the rough waves that swept the coast continuously.

They had considered farming, using some of the seeds that had managed to make it to shore, but the dry sand yielded stunted seedlings and little more. And they gave up and returned to fishing and combing the beaches for salt-weed which was nutritious if monotonous.

Sebastian and Pancho hadn't given up hope of at least improving their situation, but the older men were resistant to most ideas from the two youngest, leaving them to their own devices as long as they weren't needed to help lift or cook.

Sebastian had, in fact, become somewhat of a handy weaver. As he built his platforms, he had learned which reeds made the strongest rope, and which were soft enough to put next to skin. Through trial and error, remembering his mother's loom, he built a small frame and strung it with the softer fibers. The resulting cloth was warm, and soon enough there were good blankets to keep the chill off at night.

There was a tough grass that was very smooth, and Sebastian discovered that when the strong reeds were the warp, weaving the cloth with this grass made an almost water-proof mat. He taught a couple of the other men the process, and they made sturdy canopies to place over wood frames. These small huts were much more comfortable, and placed behind the dunes were quiet havens in stormy weather.

Pancho's skill with cooking improved still more, and he and Sebastian often worked side-by-side in the lee of the big rocks where it was warm and dry. He ground, Sebastian spun. He baked, Sebastian wove. He told tales, Sebastian sung in his developing baritone.

When Pancho complained that he had nothing to hold the strange roots Sebastian dug from the margins of the forest while they were baking, Sebastian created a sort of basket that he covered in mud from the stream. Placed in the basket while the mud was wet, and set in the hot ash from a fire, the roots roasted to perfection.

But though Pancho and Sebastian were content for the moment, the men grew tired of the simple domestic life. They longed for the taste of meat rather than fish and roots and salt-weed. And they began to quarrel.

Pancho and Sebastian were becoming targets for the older, bigger men's aggression. Less and less sure of their safety, they had made plans to "disappear."

Over the last month, Pancho had dried several baskets full of fish and salt-weed, and Sebastian had made more platforms, as high in the trees as he dared, and extra materials for rope-making and tool-making, along with as much dried food as they could secrete, had been carefully stowed, hidden in the canopy of the forest.

For, though the other men now knew that Sebastian and Pancho went daily to the forest -- returning each time with more of the tasty roots, and had sometimes come looking, they never looked up. And the hard-packed forest floor, covered with falling branchlets and needles quickly hid any sign of human passage.

By now, Sebastian had become resigned to the apparent watchfulness of the birds as he passed between the shore and the forest. He learned the rudiments of calls -- which were alarms, which were attention-seeking, which were simple songs. He even welcomed their company as he worked in the canopy of the trees, and watched over their fledglings as they stretched and practiced short flights between the trees.

Pancho, on the other hand, was unsure of the birds, though he soon left off trying to frighten them away.

And there he was, coming swiftly and quietly along the path from the south, whistling a little tune, the last bundle on his back. Sebastian let down a rope and began to haul up the bundle while Pancho nimbly scrambled up the sturdier rope ladder. Not too far away, a bird sang its warning, and it was picked up in a wave that moved toward their tree.

The young men had scarce pulled up the last signs of their climb, shaking the limbs to scatter a few more needles to hide any scuffling of the ground, when from the east came three of the older men, looking angry and breaking off branches right and left.

"When I get my hands on those scrawny lads, I'll..." threatened one of them, waving a club menacingly. The others laughed gruffly.

"Taking off like that and not being ready with supper today. Craggy says he can't find the dried fish he saw the boy making the last few weeks, either. They'll have run off, I warrant!"

Sebastian and Pancho held their breath, lying on the canopy they could see through small holes Sebastian had left without being seen from below. They watched and waited.

The men moved on through the forest, talking back and forth, frightening even the birds into silence. And then they were gone, and the boys relaxed, sitting against the trunk of the tree, swaying back and forth gently as the tree nodded its head contentedly.

The birds resumed their calling, chattering, crooning, and the afternoon began to wane as the moons made their first appearance above the sheltering canopy.