Not at ALL What You Thought

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Twelve Brothers (Part the Fourth)

The man in white had been prophesying over Kamau's birth. That day, Kamau's father, the king, Minkah's brother, had spoken to Minkah: "We must be vigilant about the women my son encounters." On his deathbed, the king reminded Minkah about that vigilance: "You must promise me, brother, to protect my son from the evil woman." None of the house had ever questioned the idea that the prophecy boded ill. As he remembered the king's dying words, Minkah remembered something about the regal, silent princess. He had seen, between her dark eyebrows, a tiny, deep burnt umber star.

In the darkness of the bedchamber he had temporarily moved into (so that his nephew's guest would be comfortable), Minkah reached for the rope beside his bed and summoned a servant.

Talitha, behind the closed doors of Minkah's bedchamber, did not sleep at all. She needed to finish the cloak she had been working on and find more needle grass. She had been fortunate thus far: the nasty weed was really not that difficult to find, only difficult to work with. Talitha noticed that in her absence, the clothes she had brought with her, her traveling clothes, had been cleaned and folded neatly on Minkah’s bed. Talitha slipped out of the gorgeous robes she had been given and into one of her dark green coveralls, pulling the cowl over her braids and forehead. After she had drawn on the leather gloves that Kamau had brought her and a pair of soft soled short boots, Talitha grabbed her sack and quietly, quickly left her chambers, searching for a way out of the castle.

When she finally did get outside and find the royal family cemetery, she thought she had done so unseen. She was wrong. She had fallen upon her knees in a patch of needle grass and was stuffing handfuls into the sack when the whisper of her name made her feel as though she had been snatched inside out. She whirled around to meet Rachael's astonished gaze.

"What in time are you doing?" the young woman asked, and then waved her hand distractedly, as if trying to wipe out her question. "You won't answer that. You don't speak. Let's start over. . . . How can I help you? Can I pick some of those horrible weeds, too?" Talitha quickly threw up both hands to stop Rachael. Then she pulled off one glove, trying to remind Rachael of her own ruined skin. Rachael waved her hand at Talitha again.

"If you can stand it, so can I," she argued. And since she seemed determined to help, no matter the cost, Talitha quickly handed Rachael her sack. "Fine," Kamau's sister responded, as if Talitha had spoken to her. "I'll hold the sack, and you fill it. I guess it really wouldn't do for Uncle to think that your blisters are catching!" Talitha gazed upon her friend with gratitude and tried to embrace her, but Rachael protested. "No, we haven't time for that. We've got to fill this bag quickly and get you back to your room before Umm notices that you --that we—are missing and alerts the whole castle! I told her just to leave you alone, and, of course, what I do is none of her business, but I doubt Umm will pay me any mind whatsoever!"

So the two women made short work of filling Talitha's sack; then they rushed, as quietly as they could, back to Talitha's room. Rachael pushed Talitha into her room with the sack, saying, "You should come get me the next time you need to go out. It takes less time if you have help. Mmmph! The things I do to get a decent sister in law!" And after making this embarrassing comment, Rachael went back to her room to sleep. Talitha stayed awake, working with the stinging needle grass, fashioning them into cloaks, little knowing that someone besides Rachael had seen her at work outside the castle.

Umm went straight to Minkah with her report. The brow of Kamau's uncle turned dark with anger. "So this is what he brings home with him: an evil sorceress to bring to naught all that his forebears have worked for." And Umm saw the great man tremble, but she did not know that it was not with fear of the sorceress. Even before Minkah had had Talitha followed, he had heard reports of the twelve ibis. One servant (though not a prophet) had said the presence of the sacred birds was a sign of blessing upon the royal house of Kamau. But Minkah had realized what the birds actually were. He had recognized what the star on Talitha's forehead meant. He knew he must plan, and quickly.

The next evening, for supper, the waiting women had dressed Talitha in crimson robes --and they had done more. At Minkah's command, they had secretly littered her bath with a sleeping potion, which would affect Talitha before the meal ended. When, to the dismay of everyone (except Minkah), Talitha collapsed at the table, Kamau rose with a cry and ran to her side to cradle her in his arms.

"What has happened?" Kamau turned to his uncle for help. Minkah, who had also risen, spoke solemnly after a practiced pause: "Who can know, Prince? Perhaps it is exhaustion. Perhaps illness. In any case, we should take the princess back to my rooms. I will summon the physicians." While Kamau carried Talitha himself, vainly calling her name, Rachael and Umm followed. Minkah stayed behind, to summon --and advise --the royal physicians.

Minkah and the physicians found Kamau, Rachael, and Talitha in Kamau's bedchamber, the stricken princess lying on the bed. The physicians examined Talitha and, as they had been commanded, shrugged their shoulders and otherwise registered confusion.

"We cannot tell what ails the princess," they lied, to the consternation of Prince Kamau and Princess Rachael. Minkah cleared his throat.

"Your highness," he said smoothly, "I know well that your desire is to be here with your guest. Still, someone should get word to the Princess Talitha's parents, and her brothers, of her illness. Perhaps we should dispatch a few of the warriors to relay the message and escort Princess Talitha's family here to watch with you until she recovers." Minkah knew that Kamau would want himself to lead the warriors to the Princess' kingdom, and Kamau did not disappoint his uncle.

"Yes, my desire is here, by Talitha's side," he said with wistfulness, "but I would be remiss in my duty if I allowed any but myself to lead warriors to the princess' kingdom; her parents will want to speak with someone who has been with her. I will immediately prepare a convoy for the journey to the princess' kingdom." Kamau kissed Talitha's hands and was as good as his word: in two hours, he and the warriors were off.

In three hours, Minkah had sent Rachael, too, off on some pretext, (and suggested to her handmaidens a bath similar to Talitha's). Soon Talitha awakened in a dark, damp imprisonment under the castle. A guard noted her first stirrings, and after commissioning another to take his place, he took the news of the princess' awakening to Minkah. Kamau's uncle immediately descended to the holding place where he had sent Talitha.

"I suppose you are wondering why you are here, although you are obviously too proud to even deign to ask," said Minkah Chafulumisa. When Talitha did not answer, he spoke on as if she had: "I know who you are. I know your plans to destroy this house. And although Kamau is too young and besotted to do what needs to be done, or even to know what needs to be done, I have not been beguiled by your witchery. In the forest, even as I speak, trained hunters seek your brothers, whose enchantment has defiled the image of the sacred ibis. The hunters will kill every one of them. You --I will personally see to it-- you will be burned as a sacrifice to the just God of our fathers at sunrise --as befits a witch." Minkah waited to hear the girl plead and weep. But he was disappointed. In respect, Minkah responded to her solemn silence: "I can tell you have a great deal of royal blood, although I never believed you were a princess." He turned and left Talitha alone with her thoughts.

Talitha could have screamed, tearing her hair and her clothes with confusion and frustration. But she had noticed that whoever had put her in the dungeon had also put her bag of needle weed and all the cloaks she had made in the dungeon as well. So she set to work. She could not allow herself to worry about her brothers (at least not any more than she had already worried); instead, as her fingers, automatically by now, began to fashion another cloak, Talitha silently prayed in her spirit for the safety of her brothers. Hide them, Great Father, (she thought) from the eyes of the hunters --at least until they are men again and can defend themselves. And, oh, God! (She wailed inwardly) Where is my Abayomi? Tears blurred Talitha's eyes for a moment, but only a moment. She wouldn't be able to see if she let herself weep; she wouldn't be able to make cloaks if she couldn't see; so she simply aligned her inner forces with the demands of her duty. And she waited for daybreak.


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