I do not like being interrupted when I am eating. It is hard to tell this to a man because men never listen. So, I am saying nothing, and I keep spooning my soup.
Of course, this man does not listen. He pulls a chair from an empty table and sits across from me, as if I have said nothing. “Tangama,” he says again. “You’re not easy to find.”
I stop with the spoon. “I do not like being interrupted when I am eating,” I say.
The man leans back. He is going to wait. This does not make me like him. He is just going to bother me with some job he wishes me to do. He has already called me tangama; he knows what I am.
I keep eating, slowing down. I do not want to start talking with this man again. He is masked, a bad sign. It is a black mask, with dark blue crescents under the eyes. He wears a gray cloak. It is dirtied and frayed. He has been out with it much, for it has the smell of jungle on it. Perhaps he has not been out with it and merely killed its previous owner. I can smell the stink of blood and thirst on him. He is wanting something; he is very eager for it. And he is needing me to get it.
Looking at the mask, then catching the eye of Moli behind the bar gazing around the inn, I am realizing I know this man. I do not know him, but I know who he is, as he knows who I am. I do not like that he has come to me. It will only mean trouble. But I have finished my soup, and he knows this.
“Tangama,” he says for the third time, “I have need of your services. I would like you to take me—”
“Kuyka, I am waiting for someone,” I say. Shut up, I want to say. But Moli has been a good friend, a better friend than I deserve. I do not want to start a fight inside his home and business.
“Good,” he says, “then you can listen.”
I am truly not liking this man. He is arrogant and presumptuous; bad qualities to begin with, worse qualities when in men. He assumes already that I will take the job. He assumes already that he is above me, that I am only good for my services. I would like to kill this man, but this is not the place or time for that.
“Your reputation is impressive,” he says, starting up his talking again. “It is said that you have made it further into the Heart than anyone else. More than once. And that of the last crew you took along the Olac, you were the only one to return.”
There are many things I would like to shout at this masked man. He knows nothing of what happened. Rumors are cheap, like bad talvo, and leave a sour taste in the mouth. I am wanting to spit out this taste; I am wanting to watch the sour spit run down the man’s mask.
Instead, I say, “It is said that you are also the only one to return when you go into the Heart. But I do not think for the same reasons.”
Mistake. He chuckles at this. He enjoys it. “How foolish of me,” he replies. “I should have known you would recognize me.”
“It is only a man that wishes to be recognized who wears a mask,” I answer.
Mistake. He likes this even more. He nods to me and does not answer for a time. He is smiling behind that mask of dark colors; I know it. “Tangama, I need your help and will pay handsomely for it.” He tosses a cloth pouch onto the table. I do not need to look inside to know it is full. I do not need to hold it to know from how it hit the aged wood that it is heavy with coin and gems. I do not need to ask to know how Kuyka got this wealth. “Half on acceptance,” he explains, “half on delivery.”
“I do not kill for coin,” I say.
“I am not asking you to kill.”
I snort. “Then what are you asking?”
“For a guide.”
“Also, I do not lead a man to a place so he can kill there.”
Kuyka pauses. “Tangama, I see you have heard rumors of me. Many of them are false. Some, no doubt, are not. But trust me, this journey has nothing to do with killing.”
Trust him. This is a thing I am not doing. A man in a mask who is throwing down fat coin—what trust is there to be had with such men? But the coin is fat, and I am guiding people, as a tangama does. It is for this I am asking, “And where are you wanting to go?”
“To the source,” Kuyka answers.
I laugh, and I am hoping Timoto Kuyka thinks it is ugly and harsh. “No one knows the source, Kuyka,” I answer. “Save your coin.”
At this, he pushes it closer to me. There is no humor in this man when it comes to business. He manages to wipe away my bitter laughter, and I do not appreciate this. “I think you do,” he retorts. “And I’m willing to pay to find out.”
Hivan swoops down from the rafters of the inn. He lands on my shoulder and begins to twitter. “Quiet,” I say softly. Hivan listens. He understands that I do not wish for Kuyka to hear us.
“It looks like your friend has arrived, tangama,” he says. “Will he be coming along? I hear that vodo are lucky in the Heart. Perhaps,” he continues, sneering, “it is merely your bird that has kept you alive this long.”
He is trying to provoke me. I will show Timoto Kuyka what luck I have. I snatch the pouch from the table, and again, even with his mask on, I can tell that this foul man is smiling.
I have only accepted because of my debts. Mainly, debts to Moli. There have been too many times when I have come back from a trip into the Heart and had no coin to return to him, and still, he has let me stay and eat and drink. Too many times. I told him I would give him half of what Kuyka will pay me and left him with half of what I was given before leaving. Moli said it was too much, but that is Moli, and I would not let him get away with being too nice. His is an inn where I can stay, without fear of being killed—usually—and for my own self, I would like to keep it that way. So, it is not all because of Moli that I am giving him this coin. A tangama must be selfish if she is to live a long life.
Feeling the weight of my pocket, I am liking Kuyka’s payment, but I am not liking Kuyka, nor his men. I did not expect to be leading six other masked cloak-wearers into the Heart. But in the morning, when we met at the Black Stones, markers of the true Heart, they stood with Kuyka, and I cursed my thick head, for there are many stories of the tangama kuyka—his own version of us.
But they are no true tangama. They might buy the potions and wards and spices and herbs, they might know some of the words and rites and rituals and might sense when things are in need of doing or avoiding, but they are no true tangama. If they were, what need would Kuyka have of me? They are men in masks, making themselves strong by covering anything that might make them look weak.
We have walked two days already. At least the men do not speak. Traveling with chatterers is not something I enjoy. The last group... No, it is better to not remember the last group.
We have walked two days, which means we are soon to reach the swamp. The swamp of ghosts, some call it, but what lies in the swamp are not ghosts. They are worse than ghosts. They are foul spirits, who wish to slip into your body and keep it. I do not tell Kuyka this, because silence is much better than noise, and because I do not wish to see him act like men do and state how unafraid he is. But I tell Hivan, on my shoulder, who chirps back that he knows this already, and have we not gone this way more times than he has feathers, to which I say, “Shut up, bird, do not make me regret taking you.” Hivan does not like this, and flies off my shoulder, which is his right, especially when his mood gets foul.
As Hivan flutters away and I watch him, I feel the stare of Kuyka on me. He has stopped and is looking.
“It will rain soon,” he says.
“Yes,” I answer. “It will.”
“Where are we making camp?” he asks, as if he has no eyes of his own.
“Not far,” I say. “Tell your men to collect keoa roots.” I keep walking, then stop. “They are the red ones, with gray leaves.”
I am waiting for Kuyka to ask why, because he is a man and men do not like being told what to do without having knowledge of why they are doing it. I sense he is thinking about asking why, but he does not. Instead, he flicks his head to his men, and off they go, in search of keoa.
The rain begins. Some people—loud talkers in Moli’s inn—claim that they love the rain. That it is so beautiful, that the sounds it makes are more musical than the finest song jays. To these people I say, “you have never been in the Heart during a rainstorm. If you had, you would not like rain. You would not speak of it as a lover. It is hateful and sharp.”
It is this way with the rain. It hits us hard, and only now, I am thinking it is good that Kuyka is used to being stabbed—or so the stories say—because these raindrops are like knives, cold knives that bleed through our drab cloaks. I tell the men to give me the keoa, red roots with eyes like crows, which they do. Already, many of the keoa are wet, which makes preparing my protections more difficult, but when unknowing men do a task, what more is there to expect?
I say what words I can over the roots, my wet neck hairs standing tall, for I can feel Kuyka listening to me. It is not right that he should learn my words; it is not right the way he seems, with one foot in our world and one foot already in the ghosts’. The further we get into the Heart, the more I feel it. His signature, it is not of blood and flesh like mine. He is not what he seems.
All the same, we must stay dry tonight. The swamp dwellers like the wet.
I finish my words over the keoa and motion to Kuyka to set up camp by the trunk of a qulial tree. As he and his men assemble our arrangements, I lay the roots, end to end, around our space, again saying my words over them. When I am done, I stand, waiting, and am thankful when Hivan returns, as the rain outside our little circle deafens and curdles the soft dirt into black mud and gives easy prey to the foul mouths hungry for a fresh body.
Fat and thick is the Olac. Not wider than cities here, for we are getting close to the thin bits. But here, just before the thin bits, it is still fat and dark. The Olac is always dark. It gives the northern men fear. Kuyka is not afraid, though. He stands with me and Hivan, staring into the blackness.
“He has seen this before,” Hivan chirps at me.
“Quiet, bird,” I say back. I still do not wish for Kuyka to hear our words.
Kuyka turns from the moving darkness to look at me. “Do we cross, tangama?”
“No,” I answer. “We float along, like leaves. Soon, we will come to the Snakes.” I pause. “Unless...”
“Unless?” He repeats. Then, he chuckles. “Unless the water goblins come for us.”
I nod. Yujiri are nasty creatures. They are after bones, bones they wish to suck clean. The bigger the bones, the better. And with eight bodies of big bones, they will be sniffing after us. “Tell your men to be ready.”
He chuckles again. “They are always ready.”
I hate this talk. This is men talk. If they were always ready, why would I have been saying for them to be ready? Kuyka may be only half a man, but he is still man in ways that will win him no hearts. Kuyka may be only half a man, but his soul is all flesh. Something is afflicting him. He does not eat or drink like the other men, and as we get deeper into the Heart, I feel his soul burning.
As he has slept, I have been saying words over him. Not strong words—I do not have wishes to draw out his evil. That is not my battle. That is the battle Kuyka has come to me for. He is thinking that the source of the Olac will deliver him. This, again, is man thinking. But it is only a fool who thinks to tell a man what he does not wish to hear.
So, I have been saying soft words, words that might help him when he is acting too much a man.
Hivan shrieks loudly.
“Bird, we will be roasting you and enjoying your small bones as toothpicks if you do that again,” I hiss.
Hivan gets angry at this and flies off. It is better this way. Vodo should not be over water too long. They are land birds. And besides, while the yujiri will be after us, a vodo is much easier for them to grab with their clawed hands and fanged mouths. Let Hivan be safe, off on the banks, for if he dies, then I will truly be alone with Kuyka and his men.
We are gathering one of the spare boats that has been left on the banks by we true tangama when I sense it. There is a wrongness with one of Kuyka’s men. He has not been this way since leaving Moli’s. Something has infected him, as is the way in the Heart. With the boat gathered, and the men moving inside it and Kuyka waiting on the mud to push us into the Olac, I am whispering words, to keep us safe from the yujiri and now this man, who will try something reckless, as all men try something reckless who are infected with ill.
Kuyka pushes, and so we are gliding, gliding over the dark ripples of the Olac.
One of the men goes to put an oar in the water.
“No!” I bark. “Nothing touches the water.”
I am wondering if from beneath his mask Kuyka is glaring at this man. He does not seem a man to be forgiving. All the same, he says nothing. So, we are floating as I am saying my words, making us drift like leaves against the current, for we are to make our way to the Snakes.
I am not counting the time, but it does not feel so long before Kuyka’s man begins to stir. I am focusing, focusing hard on the words I am saying, focusing hard on the keyoto seeds I have gathered, focusing hard on the pale shadows that I am feeling beneath the ship. But Kukya’s man is stirring, and this means my focus is pulled. There is a presence in this boat, and it is not my own, and it is not Kuyka’s.
“Sit,” I am hearing Kuyka say, though it is feeling far away, these words of his. But his man will not listen. He is not himself, and he is coming after me. I am letting him come, for unlike Kuyka, I do not think much of drawing out the evil in this man, even if it kills him.
“Sit!” Kuyka is commanding, but a man possessed hears no command.
Then there is the tension of two swordsmen poised before a duel, and Kuyka is standing now, but there is no clanging of metal. This man who is afflicted has no metal to draw. He has only a foul being in him, one that is hungry for my death.
Then there is a sound. It is the sound of a spirit sword, a ghost blade, a weapon that no man can wield—I am realizing again that I am thick in the head, for again here is evidence that Kuyka is no true man. I am turning to see Kuyka pulling out of his own man’s chest this dark hilt on which sits a braid of smoke. The man is falling in a heap as Kuyka is looking at me.
“Don’t worry, tangama,” he says softly. “I will keep you well.”
It is then I am seeing the bony hand of a yujiri on the lip of the boat. I close my eyes, and the words I say are strong, very strong, as it is Kuyka who is needing to be kept well. I hear grunts and yells, the scrabbling of claws against wood, the snapping and crunching of bones, and then, again, the swiftness of a ghost blade sinking into flesh.
We have made it upstream, on the dark side of the Olac. Two of Kuyka’s men are dead. The one Kuyka has stabbed is hurt, but he will not die. I have been saying this, and the men have listened—the living ones—as they are caring for him in the way I have told them. Also: he cannot travel. He must rest, here on the black shore before the Snakes, for to be stabbed with a ghost blade has no easy fix. He must be tended to, meaning that Kuyka’s men must decide amongst themselves who is to stay here with the straggler, while the others continue onward with us.
They are deciding this, chattering like angry monkeys, as we are camping in the Snakes. It is night, meaning it is finally light, because here in the Snakes always darkness is queen except by the eddies and pools where the tempoyta are growing. Their light gives the slim banks of the winding fingers of the Olac a glow. It is a beautiful glow. Some have said, for many generations, that it is a cursed glow, sickly and pale. To these fools I say, “then you have never seen the tempoyta with your own eyes.” For truly, it is beautiful. I would be lying if I said to Hivan that I was not thinking of the tempoyta in the Snakes when Kuyka asked for my services.
The chattering men quiet, and I am thanking whoever there is to thank, for looking at the tempoyta in the silence is even more beautiful.
Then, I am feeling him.
“Even a ghost makes a breeze,” I say, as Kuyka glides up by my side. I imagine he is smiling at this. Then, I feel his smile fade, and only the cold of the night and the silvery glow of the blossoms remains. “We are close, Kuyka,” I am adding.
“I know,” he says. He turns to face me. “Thank you, Woribon. I know you shielded me from them, on the boat. I am grateful. If I may, I would like to show you something.”
I am wanting very much to curse Timoto Kuyka. Not speak ill words at him, no; truly curse him, for who has given him rights to use my given name? No one, that is who. He is a presumptuous man, the worst kind of man, and he has made me travel deep into the Heart for a mission of fools. But I do no such thing. I am just looking at Kuyka as he is moving his hands to his face—his mask, I am meaning.
“Tangama,” he is adding to this slow, drawn-out performance, “I feel that you do not approve of my request. That is why I resorted to bribery, to coin and baser motives for this journey. I feel that you think less of me because I am like so many others, who feel the call to claim their stake on the source.”
The mask comes off his face. Kuyka stows it in a fold of his tattered cloak. On his face is not a face but black cloth. His whole head is covered in these dark strips of fabric. He is speaking again, unwrapping these false bandages.
“But my plight is not like the plight of others. I will not bore you with the details of how it came about—I simply wish to show you why I must do this.”
I know, Kuyka. These words are on my lips, but they are staying there. Why? I cannot answer even my own question, not yet, for beneath the strips of black fabric, I am seeing what Kuyka is wishing me to see.
Yes, that is right. There is nothing there. No face. No head. No anything. Perhaps, it was stolen from him. Perhaps, it was never there to begin with. Perhaps it is neither of these things, and Kuyka, like all men, is a liar and is telling and showing only what he is wishing me to see and know.
“You see, tangama,” he is saying, without a mouth, without lips, without teeth and a throat to make words. “This is why I must find the source. You claimed that it is only a man who wishes to be known who wears a mask. What of me?” he is asking. “What of the man with no face?”
The glow of the tempoyta, and the shadows they make, is my answer.
We have left Kuyka’s men behind, for they are all fools and could not decide who was to stay and who was to come, so Kuyka has decided for them: all were to stay with their brother who was weak.
It is now us two.
Even Hivan has left us, but this is good, for to be flying in the fog is asking to get lost. I am hoping that he will be waiting for me at Moli’s, but with birds these hopes are merely hopes. When one has wings, it is asking much for them to stay put.
The boat is gone as well, left with Kuyka’s men on the dark banks, and we are walking, trudging, with the slithering legs of the Olac all about us. It is some time since I am being here. Most who are asking to come to the source do not make it this far. Even the last group...
But Kuyka has a strength I did not expect. No, that is not quite right. Kuyka is knowing better than most when to listen and do what I am saying, when to ask questions when they are due, and when to do what needs doing when it arises. Like with his man on the boat. I am not saying this is surprising; I am saying I have been learning the lesson, over and over and over, to not be expecting anything of anyone, especially men. Yet, I must be remembering that Kuyka is not rightly a man, for perhaps I am getting too hopeful, and will be starting to expect things from people, which for a tangama means death.
I have been saying my words, running my hands over the pouch of dust I have made from the keyoto seeds, and even with Kuyka by my side, I am not hiding these things. He has proven himself, been proving himself, and perhaps, if he is not thick like most men, he will guard himself in the fog when I am no longer there to do this for him. Then again, perhaps not, for the fog is not like anywhere else, and it is also happening that those who go in, some of them, never return. But what need is there in telling this to Kuyka? He is knowing these truths already, and like a man, is believing he will not be one of those to get caught there.
And so it is that we are arriving at the fog. It licks the ground and the trees and the little black Snakes that will eventually come together to form the true Olac; it is licking everything with its damp tongue so that in two steps there will be nothing but fog and to turn back to find your way out, even in two steps, is a feat that may take a lifetime.
We are standing there. Kuyka is waiting for me. I hand him the pouch with the keyoto dust. “You have been listening to my words.”
“Perhaps,” he is saying, taking the pouch.
I snort. “Either you lie to make yourself sound clever, or you lie because you are ashamed of being a fool. Either way, you are a fool.”
At this, Kuyka laughs. Then, he is stepping forward.
Suddenly, I am grabbing Kuyka, grabbing him hard by the arm, not letting him take another step. He is waiting, waiting for the words that are sitting on my tongue but refusing to move. I am wanting to say many things to Timoto Kuyka, more things than I have been wanting to say to anyone for many moons. Words of thanks, words of caution, words of hope and loss and hurt and sight. Words of special sounds, that only we tangama are given rights to say, for whom it is a great blessing if others are ever to be hearing them.
I am wanting to tell Timoto Kuyka that this last part of the journey, this part alone into the fog to reach the source of the Olac, will not end how he is thinking it will. I am wanting to warn him that he will go in, and the Timoto Kuyka that comes out, if ever a Timoto Kuyka comes out, will not, cannot, be the same as the one who goes in. He is needing to be kissing his life goodbye, but without lips, I am wondering, how will this kissing take place? I am holding Kuyka’s arm for long, and he is letting me, until he is not.
“I will find you when this is over,” Kuyka is saying, as he hands me the other half of my due coin.
“Perhaps,” I answer, letting slip away the real words I am still wanting to say. “Or perhaps, I will be finding you first.”
At this, Kuyka smiles beneath his mask, and I am feeling his thanks, even if he is a man and refuses to say these things.
“Perhaps,” Kuyka says, and steps into the fog.
I am hearing a flapping of wings, and there is Hivan, perched on a black branch. Cursing him, I toss him the second pouch, which he catches as he leaves the branch. “For Moli,” I say.
Then, I am taking one last look at Hivan and speaking words of protection for Kuyka and going into the fog after him.